Spotting an ear infection isn't difficult. The ear is a sensitive area, which means infections are painful and disruptive. But when the symptoms of your ear infection also include vertigo or some sort of imbalance, the infection likely progressed to your inner ear. Inner ear infections and vertigo are the results of two conditions: Labyrinthitis and Vestibular Neuritis.
How does an infection reach the inner ear?
Inner Ear Infection and Vertigo
There are three distinct areas of the ear: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The three parts work in miraculous unison creating our sense of hearing and our sense of balance.
The functions of each part of the ear:
- Outer Ear – collects sound waves.
- Middle Ear – conducts, amplifies, and relays sound to the inner ear.
- Inner Ear – converts these sound signals and sends them to the auditory parts of the brain, along with housing our balance functions.
The majority of ear infections affect the middle ear (the space right behind your eardrum). Bacteria or viruses cause inflammation in the middle ear, preventing fluids from being drained in/out of the ear. Thus, the inflammation causes pain.
But in some cases, the infection progresses past the middle ear and into the inner ear.
Because our inner ear houses the vestibular (balance) organs, an inner ear infection causes complications with our balance. Specifically, vertigo.
With inner ear infections and vertigo, there are two possible conditions that could develop.
Labyrinthitis vs. Vestibular Neuritis
When ear infections progress into the inner ear, there are two nerves that can be affected: the vestibular nerve and the cochlear nerve. The vestibular nerve works in our vestibular (balance) system, while the cochlear nerve in our auditory (hearing) system. When an inner ear infection impacts either nerve, the result is one of two vestibular disorders.
- Vestibular Neuritis is a vestibular disorder caused by inflammation of the vestibular nerve.
- Labyrinthitis is a vestibular disorder caused by the inflammation of the vestibular nerve and the cochlear nerve.
In both Vestibular Neuritis and Labyrinthitis, because the vestibular nerve is inflamed, patients experience sudden vertigo attacks, nausea, and dizziness.
However, with Labyrinthitis, patients also experience a loss of hearing or ringing in the ears because of inflammation of the cochlear nerve.
Therefore, the main difference between Labyrinthitis and Vestibular Neuritis is the impact on hearing.
Other similarities between Labyrinthitis and Vestibular Neuritis include when and how they occur.
Most frequently, both of these vestibular disorders occur during or following an upper respiratory tract infection, cold, or flu. Bacteria from the virus travel from the lungs and throat into the ear canal (which is connected to our throat for drainage). And from the ear canal into the inner ear.
Treating Inner Ear Infections and Vertigo
Like most ear infections, an inner ear infection will generally go away on its own within 1-3 weeks. Medications can be used to help manage some of the pain and inflammation. And vestibular rehabilitation for treating the lingering dizziness, vertigo, or imbalance.
Your best resource is your primary care physician who can recognize inflammation in the ear and recommend possible treatments.
If you’re also experiencing vertigo alongside ear pain, then an inner ear infection is possible. In this case, Otolaryngologists (Ear, Nose, and Throat Doctors) or Vestibular Specialists are your best resource for identifying if the inner ear is impacted.
Read more about Labyrinthitis Treatment here.
Our clinic, the Dizzy & Vertigo Institute, is well-equipped to diagnose and treat Labyrinthitis and Vestibular Neuritis.
Our staff of vestibular specialists can help regain your quality of life.
Give us a call at (310) 954-2207 or schedule an appointment here.
We look forward to helping you!