Labyrinthitis is an inflammation of the inner ear. The labyrinth is a structure of fluid-filled sacs and tubes just inside the skull. It contains two important organs: the cochlea, which is necessary for hearing, and the balance organs (vestibular system), which tell people which way is up and down, even when their eyes are shut. Either one or both of these organs can be affected. The entire labyrinth is less than a half inch (1.25 cm) across, so infection can easily spread throughout.
The inner ear also contains a bundle of nerves leading from these organs to the brain. Inflammation of these nerves is called vestibular neuronitis (or vestibular neuritis). It's often impossible to find out whether it is the labyrinth or the nerves that are inflamed.
Although there are several potential causes of labyrinthitis, the exact cause is often unknown. It may be related to a viral infection such as the flu or a cold or, rarely, a bacterial infection such as a middle ear infection (otitis media) or meningitis. Labyrinthitis may rarely occur as part of an autoimmune disease or after a head or ear injury. Other more rare causes can include allergies, medications that can damage the inner ear, a stroke, or a tumour.
The main symptom of labyrinthitis is vertigo - a spinning sensation. Symptoms may be mild, with slight vertigo and mild tinnitus (ringing or buzzing in the ears). On the other hand, more severe cases may lead to a rare sudden loss of hearing in the affected ear. Severe vertigo with these severe symptoms may lead to nausea and possibly vomiting. Loss of balance may also occur.
Often, the inflammation goes away on its own within a couple of weeks, and both hearing and balance return to normal. However, labyrinthitis may cause long-term or permanent damage. If it affects the vestibular system, it can damage a person's sense of balance for several years after the inflammation is gone. If it affects the cochlea, it may cause hearing damage.
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