Inner ear infection symptoms, which strike adults more often than children, can cause worrisome problems, including dizziness and feeling off-balance.
The outer, middle, and inner parts of the ear can all be infected with viruses or bacteria. Children are at highest risk of middle ear infections. In fact, five out of six kids will have at least one middle ear infection by the time they are three, the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) points out.
But another type of ear infection — an inner ear infection — is far more likely to hit adults than kids and can cause symptoms ranging from mild to temporarily disabling.
Middle ear infections common in childhood are most often caused by a bacterial infection that triggers inflammation and fluid to build up behind the eardrum, producing an earache. Inner ear infections, usually the result of a virus, can also cause an earache but, because the inner ear is connected to the body’s balance system, inner ear infection symptoms can be especially debilitating.
For example, people of any age — children or adults — with inner ear infections can experience profound feelings of being off-balance and dizzy. Hearing can suffer, too.
Understanding inner ear infection symptoms
The inner ear contains the labyrinth, a sensory organ essential to keeping a normal sense of balance. Three semicircular, fluid-filled canals in the labyrinth are responsible for signaling the brain your head is turned up or down, or to the right or left, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) explains. The snail-shaped cochlea, another part of the labyrinth, picks up sound vibrations from the middle ear and converts them into electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain.
When an infection causes inflammation of the inner ear or of nerves that send signals from the inner ear to the brain, vestibular neuritis (nerve inflammation) and labyrinthitis (inflammation of the labyrinth) occur, disrupting the transmission of sensory information from the ear to the brain. The result can be a host of uncomfortable and sometimes temporarily debilitating symptoms, according to the Vestibular Disorders Association (VEDA).
Look: Inner ear infections symptoms can be frightening
When your brain receives mismatched and distorted information due to inner ear inflammation, the result can be dizziness and vertigo (the sensation your surroundings are spinning). Neuritis caused by an inner ear infection impacts the part of the inner ear controlling balance, and the condition can cause dizziness or vertigo but not affect hearing. Labyrinthitis, on the other hand, occurs when an inner ear infection affects both parts of the vestibular-cochlear nerve, resulting in balance and vertigo problems and, often, difficulties in hearing clearly.
Other inner ear infection symptoms may include:
- Tinnitus (a ringing or humming sound in your ears)
- Ear pain
- Nausea or vomiting (often associated with vertigo)
- Feeling pressure inside one or both ears
- An elevated temperature
- Mild headaches
- Difficulties with vision, such as blurring
- Unsteadiness and imbalance
- Impaired concentration
We can’t emphasize this enough: Call your doctor about symptoms
When an inner ear infection causes inflammation, onset of symptoms can be sudden. Some people develop severe dizziness and feel off-balance abruptly while going about their regular activities. This can be extremely frightening, VEDA points out, and many people seek emergency help.
In fact, some symptoms caused by inner ear infections are similar to those of serious and even life-threatening conditions. For example, symptoms of an inner ear infection can mimic side effects of certain drugs, head injuries, stroke, and other neurological disorders. So, don’t hesitate to contact your doctor or seek urgent care for an accurate diagnosis.
Prompt medical treatment with antibiotics can treat bacterial ear infections. However, most inner ear infections are viral, so antibiotics won’t help. Instead, rest, good nutrition, staying hydrated, and medications often prescribed to control dizziness and nausea are the best treatments.
Some people recover from inner ear infection over a few weeks and are soon symptom-free. Others may develop chronic dizziness if the vestibular nerve has been damaged. However, physical therapy and other treatments can usually help over time, according to VEDA.
March 20, 2020
Janet O’Dell, RN