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Labyrinthitis

Inflammation of the labyrinth of the inner ear, which contains the organs of balance and the receptor for hearing

  • Age, gender, genetics, and lifestyle are not significant factors

The labyrinth of the inner ear consists of the vestibular apparatus, which is composed of the organs of balance, and the cochlea, which contains the receptor for hearing. Inflammation of the labyrinth, known as labyrinthitis, can therefore affect both balance and hearing. Labyrinthitis can be mild, but more often it is extremely unpleasant. The condition is not painful and rarely has serious consequences.

What are the causes?

The most common cause of labyrinthitis is a viral infection. Viral labyrinthitis may develop as a result of a viral infection of the upper respiratory tract, such as a common cold or influenza. Less commonly, labyrinthitis is due to a bacterial infection, usually a complication of a middle-ear infection (see Otitis media) or, rarely, an infection elsewhere in the body.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of labyrinthitis usually develop rapidly and are most severe in the first 24 hours. They may include:

  • Dizziness and a loss of balance (see Vertigo).

  • Nausea and vomiting.

  • Ringing and buzzing noises in the ears (see Tinnitus).

The symptoms may gradually decrease as the brain compensates for the disturbance to the vestibular apparatus, but you should consult your doctor immediately if you develop symptoms of labyrinthitis. Left untreated, bacterial infection of the labyrinth may cause severe damage to the cochlea, possibly leading to permanent hearing loss, or it may spread to the membranes covering the brain, causing meningitis.

What might be done?

Labyrinthitis can be diagnosed from your symptoms. Your doctor may prescribe an antiemetic drug to ease the nausea. He or she may also advise you to lie in a darkened room with your eyes closed. Viral labyrinthitis often clears up without specific treatment, but, if you have bacterial labyrinthitis, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. It may take several weeks to recover completely from labyrinthitis.

From the 2010 revision of the Complete Home Medical Guide © Dorling Kindersley Limited.

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