Labyrinthitis is inflammation of the part of the inner ear called the labyrinth. The labyrinth is made up of fluid-filled channels which control balance and hearing. When you move your head, the fluid in the channels move and this tells the brain which direction you are moving in and how far and fast you are going. This information helps the body to balance.

Your hearing is controlled by the part of the labyrinth known as the cochlea. When the organs of balance in an ear are inflamed the information sent to the brain will be different from the other, unaffected ear. This varied information can make you feel dizzy. Hearing may also be affected if this part of the inner ear is also inflamed.

If people have no hearing loss and only experience the balance symptoms, this is known as vestibular neuronitis. Both labyrinthitis and vestibular neuronitis are often used to describe the same diagnosis. However, to be labelled as labyrinthitis it has to include hearing loss

Who is affected by labyrinthitis?

Labyrinthitis can affect both men and women equally, at any age, although it is rare in children.

How is labyrinthitis diagnosed?

As there are many conditions which can cause symptoms of dizziness, imbalance or hearing loss, you will need to undergo tests to get a diagnosis. A number of tests may be involved, including a hearing test, an eye test to check for eye movement (known as nystagmus), or your doctor may turn your head/body to see if this produces any dizziness. In some cases, you may also be required to have an MRI or CT scan. Usually only one ear is affected by labyrinthitis. It is most commonly caused by a viral infection (viral labyrinthitis). In some cases, the cause may be bacterial (bacterial labyrinthitis)

What's the difference between viral labyrinthitis and bacterial labyrinthitis?

  • Viral labyrinthitis - In most cases, labyrinthitis is caused by a viral infection. Whilst there are many viruses that can cause an infection, labyrinthitis often follows common illnesses such as a cold or flu. Viral labyrinthitis usually causes a sudden, violent onset of vertigo, nausea and vomiting as well as sudden hearing loss. As antibiotics are not effective against viruses, treatment is symptomatic and may include antivertiginous medications, antihistamines and bed rest. Within one week you are usually able to sit up and after two weeks will begin to compensate for the dizziness and vertigo. The acute episodes usually end after one to two months. Although permanent vestibular damage may remain in some cases, most people recover fully from viral labyrinthitis. Vestibular rehabilitation exercises are sometimes recommended for patients after recovery, as these may help with any residual balance problems.
  • Bacterial labyrinthitis - With a chronic middle ear infection, bacteria may enter the inner ear through the oval or round windows or through the bone. An injury to the head or ear may also cause bacteria to enter the inner ear. There may be sudden hearing loss on one side, along with nystagmus (rapid involuntary eye movement), vertigo, nausea and vomiting. Treatment with antibiotics is usually successful in managing bacterial labyrinthitis and most people recover fully. If you have had labyrinthitis, for at least one week after the symptoms have gone away you should be careful with driving or if your work involves going up ladders or operating machinery as the symptoms may return

Are there any long term effects of labyrinthitis?

For the majority of people who suffer from labyrinthitis, their balance and hearing returns to normal afterwards. In some cases, people find that they have mild dizziness when they move their head. This can happen for up to several years after they have had the infection. It is relatively uncommon for there to be complications from labyrinthitis, but they can include permanent hearing loss, permanent tinnitus, or permanent imbalance. This is more likely with bacterial labyrinthitis than viral labyrinthitis.

Further information about labyrinthitis

Please contact us for further information about labyrinthtis or to chat with a member of our team.

You can also read more about labyrinthitis on the NHS Choices website and watch the video 'Labyrinthitis and Vertigo' produced by NHS Choices.

The Ménière's Society can provide general information, but is unable to provide specific medical advice. You should always check with your medical professional for information and advice relating to your symptoms/condition.


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