Otitis interna (Labyrinthitis): Causes, symptoms, and treatment

otitis interna labyrinthisOtitis interna, also known as labyrinthitis, refers to inner ear inflammation as a result of an infection. Ear infections are common, especially among children, but they usually affect the outer or middle ear. When an infection of the inner ear occurs, it can be more serious, so immediate treatment is necessary to prevent complications.

The inner ear consists of many structures for maintaining balance and supporting the hearing, so an infection in this part of the ear can disrupt both functions.


Otitis interna affects the labyrinth part of the inner ear, which is a small bony canal in the skull. It is filled with fluid and membranes, and its canals and vestibule are referred to as the vestibule system.

Below you will find the causes, symptoms, and treatment for otitis interna.

Causes of otitis interna

There are different causes for otitis interna. It’s important to identify the cause in order to carry out the appropriate treatment. Common causes for otitis interna include:

Trauma to the head: Direct trauma to the head can result in otitis interna. This is because trauma to the head can lead to inflammation of the inner ear. In some cases, surgery may cause an inner ear infection, and in rarer cases high pressure.

Viral and bacterial infections: A variety of viruses and bacterial infections can lead to otitis interna – such as the flu, mumps, measles, shingles, and other respiratory infections. Depending on the virus that caused otitis interna, it can result in permanent hearing loss, especially if treatment is not carried out right away.

Essentially any pathogen that can reach the inner ear can lead to an infection. It is quite rare, though, that bacterium enters the inner ear because it would often cause the infection in the outer or middle ear first, and the emerging symptoms will prompt you to begin treatment.

Inner ear infections with a bacterial cause often stem from bacteria in the body and brain. The toxins of such bacteria reach the inner ear, causing infection.

Autoimmune conditions: In autoimmune conditions, the immune system wrongfully attacks itself, causing inflammation. Autoimmune diseases aren’t well understood, and they are chronic. Even allergies are considered an autoimmune condition, so when the body encounters an allergen it causes a reaction, which could lead to inflammation of the inner ear.

Medications and substances: Substances that can travel through the blood stream can ultimately make their way to the inner ear. Medications, alcohol, drugs, and other toxins can all be contributing causes to otitis interna. Some toxins can contribute to irreversible hearing loss.

Multiple sclerosis symptoms vertigo and dizzinessSigns and symptoms of otitis interna

Signs and symptoms of otitis interna can vary, depending on the cause. Some may experience vertigo, which is a spinning sensation even when not in motion. Severe vertigo can lead to nausea and even vomiting, and may be triggered by movement or certain head positions.

Vertigo may also be followed with tinnitus, which is ringing in the ears. Other symptoms include ear pain, a feeling of fullness in the ear, neck pain and stiffness, visual disturbances, loss of balance, facial weak point, headaches, tiredness, and ear discharge.

Treatment for otitis interna

Treatment for otitis interna depends on the underlying cause. If otitis interna is a result of a bacterial infection, then antibiotics are prescribed. They are usually administered intravenously. In some cases, surgery may be required depending on severity of the condition.

Viral infections may be treated with corticosteroids and other antiviral medications. If permanent hearing loss occurs, then assistive devices will be recommended.

Related symptoms of otitis interna may be treated with medications. For example, vertigo, along with balance problems, can be treated with prescription drugs.

After treatment is completed, symptoms will improve and the patient can go back to living their normal life. If balance issues still persist after treatment, patient may need to perform exercises to improve balance. If hearing loss problems do not improve within two weeks, there is a higher chance that hearing loss is permanent.

Preventing labyrinthitis

The best way to prevent labyrinthitis is to prevent contracting an ear infection, though in some cases, this may not be possible. Those with allergic rhinitis—more commonly referred to as allergies—may be more likely to experience labyrinthitis, as their allergies can irritate tissue near the middle ear causing inflammation. Also, an infection of the upper respiratory system that causes swelling and irritation of respiratory tissues can lead to labyrinthitis and may not be easily preventable. However, there are prevention strategies that can help you reduce symptoms, if not avoid them altogether.

These strategies include:

Avoiding allergens: As allergens can aggravate and cause irritation that leads to inflammation, knowing which allergens affect you personally and taking care to avoid them can help reduce your chance of suffering labyrinthitis.

Avoiding cigarette smoke: First or secondhand smoke can irritate the delicate tissue inside the middle ear that causes inflammation and may result in labyrinthitis.

Avoid drinking excessively: Frequent heavy drinking has been linked with the development of this condition, therefore limiting and/or reducing your alcohol consumption can help prevent it.

Protect your ears: An injury to the ear can result in labyrinthitis, so it is important to wear protective head gear when participating in activities like contact sports.


Eat a healthy diet: Consuming fresh, unprocessed foods can boost your immune system and keep your body healthy, warding off infections that may lead to labyrinthitis.

Treat your cold/flu: If you have developed an illness like a cold or flu, be sure you take the steps required to treat it before it can get worse or progress into an infection. Rest is the best way to help your body fight these illnesses, so ensure you are getting plenty so your condition does not develop into labyrinthitis.

Related: Natural remedies to improve inner ear circulation

Author Bio

Emily Lunardo studied medical sociology at York University with a strong focus on the social determinants of health and mental illness. She is a registered Zumba instructor, as well as a Canfit Pro trainer, who teaches fitness classes on a weekly basis. Emily practices healthy habits in her own life as well as helps others with their own personal health goals. Emily joined Bel Marra Health as a health writer in 2013.


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