What Is an Inner Ear Infection and How to Recognize One

The human ears are one of the most important organs in the body. They are responsible for hearing, balancing, and transducing sound to the brain through the outer, middle, or inner part of the ear.

Unfortunately, just like every other part of the body, the ear is also susceptible to infections, specifically in the inner region. These infections can be caused either by a virus or bacteria and can have a severe effect on your senses of balance and hearing.

In addition to this, you may also experience other symptoms which can affect your ability to perform your day-to-day activities and even your mental health.

If you want to know more, read our guide and learn about the different types, symptoms, and signs of inner ear infections.

Photo by Very Well Health 

Types of inner ear infections

In general, there are two main types of inner ear infections—labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis.

Labyrinthitis is usually a viral infection of the labyrinth, which is the inner ear system responsible for your hearing and sense of balance. When the infection occurs, your labyrinth becomes inflamed and irritated, affecting your hearing and balance.

Vestibular neuritis is an inflammation of the vestibular nerve, which is the nerve in the inner ear that sends messages to the brain. When the nerve is inflamed, your balance is also affected.

Symptoms and signs of inner ear infections

Because there are two types of inner ear infections, the symptoms are slightly different for each. However, there is one main difference between them and that is labyrinthitis often results in hearing loss, which isn’t the case with vestibular neuritis.

For example, vertigo1, nausea, vomiting, tinnitus, and hearing impairment are all common symptoms of labyrinthitis. Although these symptoms can last for several days, they are often not severe and usually disappear within a few weeks.

The symptoms for vestibular neuritis are more or less the same as the ones for labyrinthitis2. They develop within hours of infection and last for several days, usually disappearing without any intervention.

Other possible signs of inner ear infections include having trouble balancing or walking normally, feeling like your ear is blocked, earache, headache, and fluid coming from your ear.

How to diagnose an inner ear infection?

Besides using an otoscope, performing a balance exam is another method to diagnose an inner ear infection. Depending on your condition and current symptoms, doctors may also recommend undergoing a neurological exam for further diagnosis.

Also, because both types of inner ear infections share similar symptoms, doctors may additionally require you to do other tests, such as hearing tests, blood tests, a CT scan, and an MRI scan3, to rule out the following conditions:

  • Meniere’s disease
  • Migraine
  • Stroke
  • Brain hemorrhage
  • Brain tumor
  • Damaged neck arteries

Risk factors and possible complications

Anybody can develop an inner ear infection, but some people are more susceptible to them due to certain factors. These include:

  • An upper respiratory infection caused by a cold or flu
  • A middle ear infection
  • Contracting meningitis
  • A head injury
  • Respiratory diseases
  • Viral infections
  • An autoimmune condition

The risk of long-term consequences to the inner ear is fairly low. However, there is always the possibility of some damage to the inner ear parts, which may lead to hearing loss or balance issues.

Another possible complication of an inner ear infection is BPPV, which is an inner ear disorder causing a spinning sensation whenever you move your head.

Available treatment options

Whether you are suffering from labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis, doctors usually prescribe antiviral medications or antibiotics to treat the virus or bacteria that caused the infection. However, the problem with this is that the medication will treat the symptoms of the inner ear infection rather than the actual infection.

Besides medication, there are also a few home remedies you can try out to alleviate the symptoms. For example, both warm and cold compresses can relieve pain from an ear infection. You can also do simple neck exercises that rotate the neck to relieve pressure in the ear canal caused by the infection.

Other home remedies you can try are taking vitamin D supplements, using ginger oil, and adding naturopathic ear drops.

Photo by CDC from Unsplash

Final thoughts

Infections can happen in any part of the ear including the inner ear section. They can be caused by a virus or bacteria, inflaming the labyrinth or vestibular nerve 4and affecting your hearing, balance, and movement.

Luckily, these inner ear infections can be treated as long as you know what signs and symptoms to watch out for. For more information, refer to our post and learn everything you need to know about inner ear infections.

  1. Casani, Augusto Pietro, Mauro Gufoni, and Silvia Capobianco. “Current insights into treating vertigo in older adults.” Drugs & Aging 38.8 (2021): 655-670. ↩︎
  2. Perret, Marie, et al. “Acute labyrinthitis revealing COVID-19.” Diagnostics 11.3 (2021): 482. ↩︎
  3. Liu, Yilong, et al. “A low-cost and shielding-free ultra-low-field brain MRI scanner.” Nature communications 12.1 (2021): 7238. ↩︎
  4. Carlson, Matthew L., and Michael J. Link. “Vestibular schwannomas.” New England Journal of Medicine 384.14 (2021): 1335-1348. ↩︎

Last Updated on by Suchi

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Icy Health Editorial Team

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