While ear infections are a well-known ailment, particularly in children, middle ear infections tend to get the most attention. However, inner ear infections are more common in adults, and because of the functions of the inner ear, infections in this area have the potential to significantly impact hearing and balance. If you suspect you have an inner ear infection, see your doctor right away for evaluation and treatment.
Infections can occur in any part of the ear. Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear, while otitis media is the common middle ear infection. The inner ear is a unique and complex part of this hearing organ, consisting of the labyrinth -- a system of fluid-filled tubes and sacs that control hearing and balance. An inner ear infection typically causes inflammation to this system, referred to as labyrinthitis, and may also inflame the nerves that connect this hearing zone to the brain.
The complex functions of the inner ear allow the human body to remain balanced while sitting or standing. When an infection develops in the inner ear, this system is disrupted and balance problems ensue. If you have an inner ear infection, you may experience sudden and severe dizziness, or a spinning sensation known as vertigo. This can even affect your eyes, causing them to move involuntarily or blink rapidly, making it hard to focus. Severe nausea and vomiting, symptoms connected to the vertigo, may also occur.
Inflammation within the inner ear, as a result of infection, can lead to temporary hearing loss in the affected ear. This impairment can be mild to severe, and may become worse if you do not receive treatment. Tinnitus, a ringing or even roaring sound in the ear, is also a symptom of an inner ear infection. These symptoms can be disruptive and can cause anxiety, poor concentration and may limit your ability to work or participate in your usual activities.
If you suspect you have an ear infection, see your doctor to have your symptoms evaluated. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics if the infection is bacterial, and may also prescribe medications to help control vertigo, nausea or to help promote healing. If you have severe dizziness or imbalance, avoid driving a vehicle or participating in any work or activities that increase your risk of falling and injuring yourself. Don’t delay treatment, and report any persistent symptoms to your doctor. If treated promptly, you can avoid the risk of permanent hearing loss or long-term balance problems.
Reviewed by: Kay Peck, MPH RD