Labyrinthitis, sometimes referred to as vestibular neuritis, is a disorder that affects the labyrinth of the ear, causing it to become inflamed. The labyrinth is a delicate structure found deep in the inner ear. When inflamed, it can affect your hearing and balance. Labyrinthitis can occur as part of a single attack, multiple attacks or a persistent condition.
What are the symptoms of labyrinthitis?
The symptoms of labyrinthitis can include dizziness, hearing loss and vertigo – the sensation of movement, either of your person or the environment around you. These symptoms can range from mild to severe. People suffering with labyrinthitis can sometimes feel that they are unable to remain upright.
Less common symptoms include the sensation of inner ear pressure, tinnitus, fluid or pus leaking from inside the ear, ear pain, nausea, fever, blurred vision, double vision and headaches. Dizziness is by far the most common symptom, and it can be made worse by colds, illness, darkness, crowded areas, small rooms, tiredness, and walking.
Whilst suffering from labyrinthitis, you should avoid driving, using heavy tools and machinery, or working from heights.
What is the labyrinth?
The labyrinth is a part of the innermost of the ear and contains two important parts. The first part is the cochlea, which is responsible for relaying sounds into the brain and hearing.
The second part is the vestibular system, which contributes to your sense of balance. The vestibular system itself is made up of two parts – three semicircular fluid-filled canals that sense changes in rotational motion, and the otoliths, which are responsible for sensing changes in linear motion.
When the labyrinth becomes inflamed, these two parts start not working as well as they should and your hearing becomes disrupted, due to damage to the cochlea.
Usually, when determining balance, your brain combines the visual cues from your eyesight with the sensory input that comes from the vestibular system. However, while suffering with labyrinthitis because the brain is no longer able to combine these two and you start to lose your sense of balance and suffer from vertigo.
Typically, the cause of this inflammation is either a viral infection – such as a cold or flu – or a bacterial infection, although these are less common.
Who is at risk from labyrinthitis?
Typically, labyrinthitis occurs in adults that are aged between 30 and 60 years old. Of those, 30 percent have a common cold prior to developing the condition.
Viral labyrinthitis is the more common type, especially in adults. Bacterial labyrinthitis is not as common. However, children under the age of two are more vulnerable to developing the bacterial form.
In 95 percent of people, labyrinthitis is a single experience and most fully recover.
How can labyrinthitis be treated?
Labyrinthitis often passes with time, usually within a few weeks. The treatment is usually a combination of bed rest and medication. However, it is not uncommon for the symptoms to reside and can last a few months, even after the illness has abated.
Sometimes, medication – such as antibiotics or antivirals – can be required to treat the underlying infection that caused the inflammation, but this is rare.
However, symptoms can persist. If, after three weeks, you do not see any improvement, you should seek out your GP. They will sometimes need to refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist.
In a minor number of cases, people have symptoms that can persist for up to several years. This can often require more intensive treatments to help with the symptoms.
Those who suffer with chronic labyrinthitis, or repeated attacks of it, may require changes to their lifestyle and living accommodations. Those who suffer with dizziness may require home modifications to minimize the risk of falling in the home, such as grab bars being fitted in key areas of the house, for example the hallways, kitchen and bathrooms.
For more serious cases, it may be wise to alter certain parts of the house further to accommodate for someone with labyrinthitis. High sides of the bath can pose a serious risk of tripping or falling, as can any loose rugs or carpet. Removing these tripping hazards, and getting a walk-in bath can really help reduce the hazards.
Most cases of labyrinthitis will heal over time, but if you suspect you are suffering from labyrinthitis, you should consult your GP immediately to get the best advice.