Labyrinthitis is an inner ear infection. It causes a delicate structure deep inside your ear called the labyrinth to become inflamed, affecting your hearing and balance.

The most common symptoms are dizziness, hearing loss (from mild to total loss of hearing) and vertigo – the sensation that you, or the environment around you, is moving.

These symptoms can range from mild to severe, with some people feeling that they are unable to remain upright. 

Other symptoms include:

  • a feeling of pressure inside your ear(s)
  • ringing or humming in your ear(s) (tinnitus)
  • fluid or pus leaking out of your ear(s)
  • ear pain
  • feeling sick (nausea) or being sick
  • a high temperature (fever) of 38C (100.4F) or above
  • changes in vision, such as blurred vision or double vision
  • mild headaches 

Certain things can make the dizziness worse, including:

  • colds or illness 
  • the dark
  • being in crowded areas or small rooms
  • tiredness
  • a women’s period
  • walking

See your GP if you have these symptoms.

You should also avoid driving, using tools and machinery, or working at heights if you're feeling dizzy.

Treating labyrinthitis

In most cases, the symptoms pass within a few weeks. Treatment involves a combination of bed rest and medication to help you cope better with the symptoms. You may need additional medication to fight the underlying infection, although antibiotics are not often required as the cause is most commonly due to a virus.

Contact your GP if you do not notice any improvement after three weeks. You may need to be referred to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.

A small number of people have persistent symptoms that last for several months, or possibly years. This requires a more intensive type of treatment called vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT).

Read more about treating labyrinthitis.

The labyrinth

The labyrinth is the innermost part of the ear. It contains two important parts:

  • the cochlea – this relays sounds to the brain and is responsible for hearing
  • the vestibular system – a complex set of fluid-filled channels that contributes to your sense of balance

Inflammation of the labyrinth can disrupt your hearing and sense of balance, triggering the symptoms of labyrinthitis.

The labyrinth usually becomes inflamed either because of:

  • a viral infection, such as a cold or flu
  • a bacterial infection, which is much less common

Read more about the causes of labyrinthitis.

Who gets labyrinthitis?

Most cases of viral labyrinthitis occur in adults aged 30 to 60 years old.

Viral labyrinthitis is relatively common in adults. Other types of ear infections are usually more widespread in children.

Bacterial labyrinthitis is much less common. Younger children under two years old are more vulnerable to developing bacterial labyrinthitis.

Complications of labyrinthitis

Bacterial labyrinthitis carries a higher risk of causing permanent hearing loss, particularly in children who have developed it as a complication of meningitis.

Because of this high risk, a hearing test is recommended following bacterial labyrinthitis.

Severe hearing loss following bacterial labyrinthitis can sometimes be treated with a cochlear implant. This is not a conventional hearing aid, but a small electronic device fitted under the skin behind the ear during surgery.

Read more information about hearing loss.

Vestibular neuronitis

Many people diagnosed with labyrinthitis only experience the balance symptoms without hearing loss.

This is actually known as vestibular neuronitis rather than labyrinthitis.

However, both terms are often used to describe the same diagnosis.

Page last reviewed: 30/01/2015

Next review due: 30/01/2017