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What is an inner ear infection?

Inner ear infections can be particularly bothersome because they affect your balance. Learn the signs of inner ear infection and when to see a doctor.

What is an inner ear infection? | Symptoms | Causes | Treatment | When to see a doctor

Chances are, you or someone you know has experienced an ear infection. But did you know that there are several different types of ear infections? The most common ear infection—especially in children—is known as otitis media or acute otitis media, which means a middle ear infection. About half of all young children will have at least one middle ear infection by their second birthday. There’s also swimmer’s ear, a condition known as otitis externa (an outer ear infection), which occurs due to a buildup of water in the ear, providing an ideal breeding ground for bacteria. Finally, there are inner ear infections, which can affect balance and hearing. This article will focus on inner ear infections. Continue reading to learn all about these infections of the inner ear.

What is an inner ear infection?

Before focusing on the inner ear, let’s review the ear’s anatomy from the outside. 

The three main parts of the ears are the following:

  • Outer ear: The visible part of the ear, consisting of cartilage and skin, with a canal that leads to the eardrum, which separates the outer and middle ear.
  • Middle ear: The middle ear contains tiny bones that transfer sound vibrations to the inner ear. The eustachian tubes help equalize pressure and are also located in the middle ears.
  • Inner ear: The inner ear contains two main parts: a structure called the cochlea, which is responsible for hearing, and semicircular canals called the labyrinthine, which are responsible for balance.

What are the different types of inner ear infections? 

There are two main types of inner ear infections—labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis (also known as vestibular neuronitis). 

Labyrinthitis is an infection or inflammation of the labyrinth, causing vertigo (a spinning sensation) and hearing loss. 

Vestibular neuritis affects the vestibular nerve, causing more prolonged periods of vertigo, but symptoms of vestibular neuritis usually do not include significant hearing loss.

Inner ear infection symptoms 

Inner ear infections are most common in adults ages 30 to 60, although they may occasionally occur in children. Because the inner ear is associated with hearing and balance, symptoms of inner ear infections are related to hearing and balance. They may include:

  • Problems with balance
  • Vertigo
  • Dizziness
  • Hearing difficulties
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Feeling fullness in the ear
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
  • Headache
  • Ear pain
  • Fluid drainage from the ear

In some cases, the infection can spread to the ear from another part of your body, causing other symptoms like a runny nose, sore throat, or fever. 

What causes inner ear infections?

Labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis are often caused by viral infections, such as:

When the cause is a viral infection, the individual will often notice symptoms of a cold or upper respiratory infection. 

In rare cases, a head injury or bacterial infection, such as bacterial meningitis, may cause an inner ear infection. 

How long does an inner ear infection last?

While the length of illness will vary, a prompt diagnosis and treatment will help the infection clear faster. With immediate treatment, severe symptoms generally go away within one or two weeks, although some infections can linger for several months or even longer. Your ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist may assemble a team, including an audiologist and vestibular therapist. People with severe cases may require hearing aids or cochlear implants and/or vestibular therapy and balance exercises.

Inner ear infection treatment

It is a good idea to see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis and treatment plan as soon as possible. Your healthcare provider may perform a physical exam and/or order some tests, such as a CT scan, MRI, and/or hearing test.

 The treatment will depend on the suspected cause of the infection. If the infection is viral, your doctor may prescribe an antiviral medication. Antibiotics will not work for viral infections, as antibiotic medicines are only effective against bacteria. If the infection is suspected to be caused by bacteria, your healthcare provider will prescribe an antibiotic. 

Other treatments that may be considered, based on individual factors, such as symptoms, other medical conditions, and other medications the patient takes, include:

 If your doctor prescribes medication, you can visit the SingleCare website and use a free SingleCare card to save up to 80% off the cost of your prescription. 

Home remedies for inner ear infection

In addition to taking medication as prescribed or recommended by your healthcare provider, there are some home remedies you can try to help your symptoms:

  • Apply a warm compress over the ear several times daily.
  • Gargle with warm salt water several times daily.
  • Avoid smoking and alcohol.
  • Get plenty of rest, and slowly resume activity when able. You may need assistance walking if you lose your balance.
  • Avoid sudden movement or changes in position.
  • Avoid driving, climbing, and operating heavy machinery when ill and for at least one week after symptoms disappear.

RELATED: Home remedies for ear infection

When to see a doctor for an inner ear infection

It is important to consult your doctor right away if you have symptoms of an inner ear infection. If you have an inner ear infection that is left untreated, recovery may take longer, and you could experience permanent damage to your hearing. 

Any changes in hearing should be immediately reported to your healthcare provider, as well as vertigo, nausea, or balance problems.