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What is labyrinthitis?

Labyrinthitis is an infection of the balancing centre in the inner ear (or labyrinth).

The infection can affect the messages sent by the ear to the brain, causing changing in hearing and balance. It usually develops suddenly and, if treated, clears up in a few weeks.

What causes labyrinthitis?

The most common cause of labyrinthitis is a viral infection, such as from a cold or the flu, or infection with a virus from the herpes group of viruses, which causes chickenpox, shingles or cold sores, as well as measles or glandular fever. Sometimes an ear infection can lead to labyrinthitis.

Less commonly, a bacterial infection, such as meningitis or a middle ear infection, can cause labyrinthitis. Some autoimmune conditions, allergies and medications can lead to labyrinthitis.

Illustration showing inflammation of the inner ear (labyrinthitis).
Labyrinthitis is an inflammation of the inner ear, usually caused by an infection. It can lead to mild or severe dizziness.

What are the symptoms of labyrinthitis?

Most people with labyrinthitis feel that the room is spinning. This dizziness is also known as vertigo. It can be mild, or it can be so bad it is hard to get out of bed.

Other possible symptoms include:

  • nausea, almost like sea-sickness
  • a false sense of movement
  • uncontrolled eye movement
  • loss of balance
  • fever
  • ear pain
  • vomiting
  • hearing loss or ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
  • changes in vision, such as blurred vision

How is labyrinthitis diagnosed?

If you think you have labyrinthitis, you may need to visit your doctor for diagnosis and treatment.

Your doctor will talk to you and examine you. The examination may include:

  • asking you to move your head rapidly
  • hearing tests
  • checking your eye movements (flickering eyes can be a sign that the balancing system is not working properly)
  • checking whether you have an ear infection
  • checking your blood pressure
  • checking your balance

Your doctor may also organise tests such as a lumbar puncture, EEG, a CT scan or an MRI to rule out a more serious infection such as meningitis or a stroke.

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How is labyrinthitis treated?

If you have been diagnosed with labyrinthitis, you may not need any treatment.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medications such as:

  • corticosteroids to reduce inflammation in the inner ear
  • vestibular suppressants for severe vertigo
  • anti-nausea medications for nausea or vomiting
  • antibiotics, if the labyrinthitis is caused by a bacterial infection

If your symptoms don’t go away, a specialist physiotherapist can help retrain the brain to interpret balance messages from the inner ear.

You can also help ease symptoms by:

  • resting on your side during dizzy episodes
  • avoiding alcohol
  • drinking plenty of water
  • creating a low-noise, low-stress environment
  • avoiding bright lights

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: May 2021

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