Inner ear infection symptoms, which strike adults more often than children, can cause worrisome problems, including dizziness and feeling off-balance.
Viruses and bacteria can infect the outer, middle, and inner parts of your ear. Children are at highest risk of middle ear infections. 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 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 temporary disability.
Bacterial infections that trigger inflammation and fluid to build up behind the eardrum, producing an earache, commonly cause middle ear infections in children. Inner ear infections, usually the result of a virus, can also cause an earache. Inner ear infection symptoms can be especially debilitating because your inner ear is connected to your body’s balance system.
For example, people of any age 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 telling your brain whether your head is turned upright or down, or to the right or left, the National Institutes of Health explains. The snail-shaped cochlea, another part of the labyrinth, picks up sound vibrations from your middle ear and converts them into electrical signals that are transmitted to your brain.
When an infection causes inflammation of your inner ear or nerves that send signals from your inner ear to your brain, vestibular neuritis (nerve inflammation) and labyrinthitis (inflammation of the labyrinth) occur. Those problems disrupt the transmission of sensory information from your ear to your brain.
The result can be uncomfortable and sometimes temporarily debilitating symptoms, according to the Vestibular Disorders Association (VEDA).
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 your inner ear controlling balance, and the condition can cause dizziness or vertigo but not affect your hearing.
Labyrinthitis, on the other hand, occurs when an inner ear infection affects both parts of youir vestibular-cochlear nerve, resulting in balance and vertigo problems and, often, trouble 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
Talk to your doctor about inner ear infection 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. That can be extremely frightening, VEDA points out, and many people seek emergency help.
In fact, some symptoms of inner ear infections are similar to those of serious and even life-threatening conditions. For example, symptoms 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. But 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 infection damages their vestibular nerve. Physical therapy and other treatments can usually help over time.
June 30, 2023
Janet O’Dell, RN