Your ear is made up of three parts: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. The inner ear consists of a system of fluid-filled tubes (the labyrinth). This is made up of the cochlea, which senses sound, and the vestibular system, which senses movement of your head and helps with balance.
When you turn your head, the change in position and direction is sensed by the vestibular system, which then sends messages to your brain. Your brain also uses messages sent from your eyes, joints and muscles to get information about the position of your body. However, if any one of these sources of information suddenly becomes disrupted, your brain can't co-ordinate the messages properly and your balance will be affected.
Labyrinthitis is a condition caused by inflammation in your inner ear and disrupts the messages sent from your ear to your brain. This causes you to feel dizzy because your brain thinks your head is moving when it’s still. When this happens, the information that is sent to your brain from other areas of your body (eyes, joints and muscles) can’t be co-ordinated and causes you to feel dizzy.
If you have labyrinthitis, you may:
Although not necessarily a result of labyrinthitis, see your GP if you have these symptoms.
Labyrinthitis can sometimes develop when you have the flu, so you may have flu-like symptoms such as a sore throat and fever.
Also, your eyes may shake very slightly (nystagmus), but it's usually only your GP who notices this.
The symptoms of labyrinthitis can come on suddenly, for example, when you wake up or during the course of the day. Your symptoms usually improve within a few days. You may also feel unsteady for several days and weeks afterwards, but this usually improves over time.
Labyrynthitis often settles without complications. Sometimes, however, labyrinthitis can cause permanent hearing loss and lasting damage to the balance system in your inner ear. Although your brain can try to compensate for the damage, you may continue to feel unsteady, even after the initial spinning and dizziness has gone away.
Doctors don't always know exactly how or why labyrinthitis develops. Some possible causes are listed below.
Some symptoms of labyrinthitis, such as vertigo, can sometimes be triggered by migraines, or a stroke or a transient ischaemic attack (‘mini stroke’).
If you have viral labyrinthitis, your hearing should return to normal. If you have bacterial labyrinthitis, then your hearing loss may be permanent.
Your GP will ask about your symptoms and examine you. He or she may also ask you about your medical history.
Your GP will look into your ear using an instrument called an otoscope. This is used to check for signs of inflammation and infection in your outer or middle ear. He or she may also look at your eyes and test your balance.
Your GP may refer you to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist or an audiovestibular specialist (a doctor who specialises in identifying and treating conditions that affect hearing and balance) for further investigation. You may need to have:
Initially, you will need to rest and maintain your fluid levels by drinking enough water. Your GP is likely to prescribe you anti-sickness medication to help with nausea and vomiting. Some of these medicines can cause drowsiness so you may not be able to drive. Speak to your GP about how your medicine may affect you and always read the patient information leaflet that comes with your medicine.
If you have bacterial labyrinthitis, rarely, you may need to have intravenous antibiotics. Your doctor may take a swab from your ear and send it to a laboratory for testing. This will enable him or her to prescribe an appropriate antibiotic.
If your vomiting is severe, you may need to go to hospital and have a drip inserted into a vein in your hand or arm to give you fluids.
If you continue to feel unsteady after a number of weeks, your doctor may advise you to try vestibular rehabilitation therapy. The exercises you do as part of the therapy can improve your brain's ability to sort out the 'good' information from the 'bad', which may help with your balance and walking skills. Initially you may feel more unsteady, but this will improve over time. Speak to your GP for further advice and information about vestibular rehabilitation. For more information see our FAQs.
No. Vertigo is just one specific form of dizziness. You can feel dizzy without having vertigo.
If you feel dizzy, it means that you may feel light-headed or unsteady. People often feel light-headed or dizzy before they faint. It can be a reaction to a strong emotion, to standing still for a long time or to standing up too quickly. Dizziness and fainting are very common and aren't often serious. However, you should still be checked by your GP if you faint for no obvious reason or feel dizzy.
Many other things can also make you feel dizzy, such as problems with your heart, blood (eg anaemia) and some conditions related to your brain. It can also be a side-effect of some types of medicine.
Vertigo is just one specific type of dizziness, which is caused by a problem with your inner ear. If you have vertigo, it means you have the feeling that you, or things around you, are moving even when you are still.
Vestibular rehabilitation starts with very simple exercises, such as moving your eyes, and gradually progresses to more complicated exercises.
One of the most common sets of rehabilitation exercises for labyrinthitis are called Cawthorne-Cooksey exercises. These include the following.
These exercises can help you return to your usual activities more quickly. You should only do these exercises if you have been shown how to do them by your specialist or a physiotherapist (a health professional who specialises in maintaining and improving movement and mobility).
Labyrinthitis itself isn’t contagious. However, infections that may trigger the condition can be.
You can't catch labyrinthitis directly from someone else who has the condition.
However, viral infections such as mumps and flu that are thought to trigger labyrinthitis are contagious and can be spread from one person to another. It's therefore possible that you can catch a virus (such as mumps and flu) from someone who has had labyrinthitis and go on to develop the condition yourself. For further information, see causes of labyrinthitis.