What Is Labyrinthitis?

Medically Reviewed by Christopher Melinosky, MD on May 12, 2023
4 min read

When your inner ear gets infected or inflamed, it can cause a type of balance disorder known as labyrinthitis. Sometimes you can get it when you have an upper respiratory infection, like the flu.

Inner ear infections that lead to labyrinthitis are usually caused by a virus. Sometimes bacteria can cause it, too. The symptoms of viral and bacterial infections can be so similar that a doctor needs to confirm which type you have before they can treat it.

Your inner ear contains a system of loopy tubes and sacs called the labyrinth. It contains some fluid and hair cells. It also controls your balance and hearing. An infection can disrupt information that flows from this area to your brain.

Labyrinthitis can not only affect your hearing, it can also make you feel dizzy. You might experience something more severe, like vertigo. This is the sudden feeling that you or the inside of your head is spinning.

Other symptoms might include:

Symptoms often appear without warning. For instance, you might notice them when you wake up one morning. This can be scary. If you feel lightheaded, or have trouble with your balance or vision, call your doctor or go to the ER right away.

This form of the infection is more common than bacterial. But doctors know less about it. Some viruses seem to be linked. These include measles, mumps, hepatitis, and the types of herpes that cause cold sores, chicken pox, or shingles.

If you have viral labyrinthitis, it usually will affect only one ear. It might quickly run its course and seem to go away. But it can return without warning.

This can happen in one of two ways: First, bacteria from a middle ear infection make toxins that get into the inner ear and cause inflammation and swelling. Or second, an infection in the bones surrounding the inner ear makes toxins that cause the same symptoms.

A chronic, or ongoing, middle ear infection can cause it.

A more severe and uncommon type of bacterial labyrinthitis occurs when germs invade the labyrinth from outside the ear. A condition like bacterial meningitis can be the cause of this type.

There aren’t any specific tests that let your doctor know you have labyrinthitis. They’ll first rule out other conditions that mimic it. They may want to test for health issues like:

If your doctor rules out bacteria as the cause, they might prescribe antiviral meds or those that control swelling. Steroids like cortisone can help, too.

You might also need medication to treat your symptoms, such as nausea or vertigo.

Special exercises can help you regain your balance. A physical therapy program that focuses on this can speed up your recovery.

It might take a while -- from a few weeks to months -- but most people recover completely from labyrinthitis. It’s possible to have another bout of vertigo later on. This can happen if you turn over in bed or even tilt your head a certain way. Physical therapy can help you get better.

It may, but it might be a milder case. Your doctor likely will look for another cause for your symptoms at this point.

  • Don’t move too quickly -- you might lose your balance.
  • Remove tripping hazards like area rugs and electrical cords. Put non-slip mats in your bath and shower.
  • If you start to feel dizzy, lie down right away. People with vertigo often feel better if they lie down in a quiet, darkened room with their eyes closed.
  • Drink lots of fluids and eat well. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, salt, and tobacco.
  • If you think your meds are making you feel dizzy, talk to your doctor. They may change your dose, have you stop using them, or try something else.
  • Don’t drive if you have dizzy spells.