What is labyrinthitis?

Labyrinthitis (say: “lab-uh-rinth-eye-tus”) is a condition that affects a part of the inner ear called the labyrinth. Normally, the labyrinth helps you keep your balance. When it gets swollen, the labyrinth doesn’t work properly. This makes it so that your brain doesn’t get the right balance signals. Labyrinthitis can make you feel like you are falling or spinning, even though you aren’t.

Symptoms of labyrinthitis

Symptoms of labyrinthitis can range from mild to severe. You may have symptoms as soon as you wake up in the morning, or they may occur suddenly throughout the day. Common symptoms include the following:

  • Dizziness.
  • Feeling that you are spinning (also called vertigo).
  • Eye jerking (also called nystagmus).
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Hearing loss in one ear.
  • Ringing in your ears (also called tinnitus).

If you have symptoms of labyrinthitis, talk to your doctor. Other conditions can cause similar symptoms. Get medical care right away if you experience vertigo with a fever above 101˚F, fainting, convulsions, slurred speech, paralysis, double vision, or severe vomiting.

What causes labyrinthitis?

The swelling in the inner ear that causes labyrinthitis often results from an infection. For example, people often develop labyrinthitis after having an upper respiratory infection, such as the flu or a cold.

How is labyrinthitis diagnosed?

Your doctor will ask questions about your symptoms and examine you. Your doctor may do some tests to be sure that another condition isn’t causing your labyrinthitis.

Can labyrinthitis be prevented or avoided?

Because labyrinthitis is caused by an underlying condition, you can reduce your risk of getting it. For example, wash your hands regularly and try to avoid germs during cold and flu season. Limiting your exposure to these illnesses will reduce your risk of labyrinthitis.

You may also reduce your risk by not drinking large amounts of alcohol or smoking.

Labyrinthitis treatment

Nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (also called NSAIDs) are sometimes used to reduce swelling. These include ibuprofen (two brand names: Advil, Motrin) and naproxen (one brand name: Aleve). Steroid medicines are another option to reduce swelling. Your doctor may also prescribe medicine to relieve nausea, vomiting and dizziness. However, even without treatment, the symptoms of labyrinthitis will usually go away after several weeks.

If you have vomiting that is severe and uncontrollable, you may need to spend a short time in the hospital to prevent dehydration.

What can I do to feel better?

You will probably need to take it easy for at least a week or two. During this time, avoid activities like driving, climbing or operating heavy equipment. Sudden dizziness can make these activities dangerous. Tips to help you feel better include the following:

  • Avoid sudden movement, especially of your head.
  • Don’t play sports that require lots of movement, such as racquetball or volleyball.
  • Lie still when you’re having symptoms.
  • Avoid bright lights.
  • Don’t try to read when you’re having symptoms.

Living with labyrinthitis

Your most severe symptoms will probably get better after the first week. Most people are completely better within 2 to 3 months. Sensitivity to motion may be a problem for several years, especially for older adults. In rare cases, people may have permanent hearing loss. This is less likely if labyrinthitis is treated promptly.

Questions to ask your doctor

  • Will I lose my hearing?
  • Is there anything I can do to make the dizziness stop?
  • When should I call the doctor?
  • If the dizziness gets really bad or I start throwing up, should I go to the emergency room?
  • How long could this last?
  • Is there a medicine I could take to help with my symptoms?