Ear infections can happen anywhere in your outer, middle or inner ear. The symptoms can be very different depending on where the problem is located. If the infection is in your inner ear then it can have a particularly dramatic effect on your senses of balance and hearing. Read on to learn more about inner ear infections and how they can affect you.
The Inner Ear
Your ear is made up of three sections that are known as the outer, middle and inner ear. All three parts of the ear work together to enable us to hear, but the inner ear also plays a vital role in our sense of balance.
- The outer ear includes the part that you can see along with the ear canal. These channel soundwaves into the ear so that you will be able to hear them.
- The middle ear is made up of the ear drum and the space behind it, which contains the tiny bones that transmit vibrations from the ear drum to the inner ear.
- The inner ear contains the cochlea, which receives the signals and transforms them into a message your brain can “hear”. The inner ear also contains the semicircular ducts, which send signals to the brain to tell us how our head and body are positioned. We use these signals to stay balanced. The cochlea and vestibular system (balance organs) are sometimes known together as the labyrinth.
What Causes Inner Ear Infections?
Infections can happen in any part of the ear, including the inner section. When the inner ear is infected, the problem is sometimes known as labyrinthitis.
The infection can be caused by a virus or bacteria, which usually reach the inner ear after affecting another part of your body.
- Viral Infections: Lots of different viruses can affect the inner ear, including the common cold and flu. The infection usually spread to the inner ear from other parts of the body (such as the throat or airways), so you may start to develop symptoms related to your inner ear after noticing cold-like symptoms. Antibiotics can’t help with this type of infection.
- Bacterial Infections: Bacterial infections are less common, especially in adults, but they can happen. Bacteria are more likely to get into the inner ear if the membranes separating it from the inner ear are broken, which might happen if you have a middle ear infection. If the infection is caused by bacteria then taking antibiotics might help.
In some cases, the problem that we call an inner ear infection isn’t actually an infection at all. Labyrinthitis can happen when the inner ear becomes inflamed for other reasons, for example if you have an autoimmune condition that causes your immune system to mistakenly attack the tissue. You might need to get treatment for this underlying condition in order to prevent the inner ear problems from returning.
Symptoms of Inner Ear Infection
Since the inner ear plays key roles in both hearing and balance, any issues with these senses could be linked to an infection in this area. Infections in other parts of the ear are less likely to affect your hearing or balance, but the other symptoms can be similar.
Possible signs of an inner ear infection or inflammation include:
- Vertigo, a sensation that you or your surroundings are spinning or moving around even when everything is still
- Having trouble balancing or walking normally
- Nausea or vomiting
- Problems with your hearing
- Feeling like the ear is full or blocked
- Tinnitus or ringing in your ears
- Fluid or pus coming from your ear
Inner ear infections can also be linked to other symptoms, depending on the source of the infection. For example, if the infection spread to the inner ear from your airways, you might also have a runny nose. In some cases, these other symptoms might be fading when the problems in your inner ear begin, because the original infection might have been eliminated. You could also have more generalised symptoms of infection, such as a fever.
Longer Term Effects of Inner Ear Infections
Generally, the symptoms will clear up as soon as the infection is gone. However, the effects can sometimes last longer.
You might still feel dizzy and off-balance even when the other symptoms caused by the infection have gone. This can be a sign that the balance organs were damaged. Your brain can usually learn to work with these changes, so your sense of balance should usually come back by itself. However, if you’re struggling to cope or the problem persists, you should see an ENT specialist. The doctor can check for any underlying causes and may refer you for vestibular rehabilitation therapy to help you to recover your balance.
Inner ear infections can also have a longer term effect on your hearing. This is more likely if you had bacterial infection, so your doctor might recommend a hearing test to check on your ears after the infection.
What to Do?
Inner ear infections will usually clear up by themselves within a few weeks, although some can last for six weeks or more. If the symptoms are severe or they don’t start to improve within a few days, then you should see a doctor. The doctor might prescribe antibiotics if the infection appears to be caused by bacteria. You will also be able to get help with any long term effects on your hearing or balance.
However, in most cases you will be able to manage the symptoms of an inner ear infection at home. Taking an over the counter painkiller like ibuprofen should help relieve any pain and may help with the other symptoms by reducing the inflammation. Holding a warm compress against your ear can also be soothing. It’s also a good idea to stay upright as much as possible and to prop your head up while sleeping, as this can encourage any fluid in the ear to drain away.
Do you have any other tips for coping with an inner ear infection?