The inner ear contains a system of tube loops and sacs called the labyrinth, as well as vestibular nerves that send information to your brain. These all help control your balance and hearing.
Inflammation of the labyrinth in the inner ear creates a condition called labyrinthitis and is most commonly caused by a viral infection. Symptoms include dizziness, nausea and sickness, sudden hearing loss, ringing in the ears (tinnitus), blurry vision and feeling light-headed. You may experience vertigo, where it feels like you are in constant motion or the room is spinning (it feels a bit like you’re on a boat in a stormy sea.)
Labyrinthitis is commonly caused by a viral infection, often after a cold or flu but shingles and cold sores are also known to sometimes trigger it. You are at greater risk of suffering from labyrinthitis if you smoke, drink too much alcohol, or if you suffer from allergies or stress.
Be careful when moving around, do it slowly, to avoid losing your balance, and hang on to a rail or solid furniture if necessary. If you start to feel dizzy, lie down straight away. Ensuring you stay well hydrated and you're eating regular meals can help. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, tobacco and reduce your salt intake as that can make the dizziness worse.
You should not drive, operate heavy machinery or climb up ladders while feeling dizzy, as this can be very dangerous for both yourself and others.
Your doctor will listen to your symptoms and examine your ears and the nerves of your head and neck. They can consider potential causes, and if necessary, arrange any further investigations such as a blood test or hearing test. They will consider if any medications are adding to your symptoms.
It's sometimes difficult to differentiate the symptoms of labyrinthitis from more serious conditions, in which case your doctor may organise for further investigations to rule these out.
If your symptoms are caused by a virus, simple fluids and bed rest is best, plus medication to ease the dizziness and sickness – antihistamines, anti-sickness or motion sickness tablets may be effective. Typically, it can take a couple of weeks for you to start feeling much better, but it can last as long as a couple of months.
If your symptoms are caused by a bacterial infection, antibiotics usually help resolve the symptoms. Most people make a full recovery, but in a few unfortunate cases, there may be permanent damage causing ongoing symptoms.
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