- What Is It?
- vs. Middle Ear Infection
- Signs and Symptoms
- Home Remedies
Facts you should know about an inner ear infection (in adults and children)
An inner ear infection often is inflammation or irritation of the parts of the ear responsible for balance and hearing called labyrinthitis. Less commonly, an inner ear infection is a true infection caused by a virus or bacteria.
- Symptoms of inner ear infections include:
- The most common cause of an inner ear infection is a virus. Less commonly, the cause of an inner ear infection may be bacterial.
- Most ear infections that affect the outer (swimmer's ear, otitis externa, or outer ear infection) or middle ear (otitis media) are mild and go away within one to two weeks. Inner ear disorders can last longer.
- Most ear infections are infections of the middle ear (otitis media). Symptoms of middle ear infection are slightly different from an inner ear infection and include ear pain, fever, and discharge from the ear canal. Since otitis media commonly occurs with an upper respiratory infection (a "cold"), other symptoms include sinus pressure, sore throat, and runny nose.
- Problems hearing out of the infected ear is more common in inner ear infections than in middle ear infections.
- Inner ear infections also may cause symptoms of nausea, vomiting, and dizziness, which usually are not symptoms of middle ear infections.
- Medications may be prescribed to treat an inner ear infection, to reduce swelling and inflammation, to treat nausea and vomiting, and to help eliminate dizziness and vertigo (sensation of the room spinning).
- An inner ear infection itself is not contagious, but the viruses and bacteria that may cause them are.
- When treated promptly, most inner ear infections will resolve in a few days to about two weeks' duration, with no permanent damage to the ear. Some inner ear infections may lead to permanent partial or total hearing loss or damage to the vestibular system, which is responsible for the balance.
What is an inner ear infection? What does the ear look like?
An inner ear infection is technically an infection of the innermost part of the ear. Often, an inner ear infection is not an infection, but inflammation or irritation of the parts of the ear responsible for balance and hearing. Less commonly, an inner ear infection is a true infection caused by a virus or bacteria. When the inner ear is inflamed or irritated, symptoms such as dizziness, loss of balance, ringing in the ear (tinnitus), nausea, and vomiting may come on suddenly.
The ear anatomy is divided into three parts, the outer, middle, and inner ear.
- The outer ear consists of the parts you can see outside the body, the auricle (also known as pinna), the earlobe, and the ear canal up to the eardrum.
- The middle ear consists of the eardrum (tympanic membrane) and the auditory bones (ossicles) - the incus, malleus, and stapes.
- The inner ear consists of the fluid-filled semicircular canals, snail-shaped cochlea, vestibular nerve, and auditory nerve.
What are the signs and symptoms of an inner ear infection?
Some people with an inner ear infection may have few or no symptoms at all. When symptoms do appear, they tend to come on rapidly. Symptoms of an inner ear infection may include:
- Dizziness or spinning sensation (vertigo)
- Nausea and vomiting
- Problems with balance or walking
- Hearing loss (or decrease in sound volume) in one ear
- Earache or ear pain
- Fever (sometimes)
- The feeling of fullness in the ear
- Ringing in the ear (tinnitus) or hearing abnormal sounds
What causes inner ear infections?
A viral infection is the most common cause of an inner ear infection. Viruses associated with inner ear infections include
Less frequently, a bacterial infection may cause an inner ear infection.
How long does an ear infection last? How long do symptoms last?
How long an ear infection lasts depends on how severe the infection is. When treated promptly, most inner ear infections will resolve in days to about 2 weeks duration, with no permanent damage to the ear. Some inner ear infections may lead to permanent partial or total hearing loss. There can also be damage to the vestibular system, which is responsible for balance, which may prolong the time for recovery.
Most ear infections that affect the outer or middle ear are mild and go away within one to two weeks. Inner ear disorders can last longer. Chronic ear infections can last 6 weeks or more.
How can you tell if you have an inner ear infection?
The only way to know if you have an inner ear infection or another ear problem is to see a doctor. If you experience symptoms of an ear infection such as ear pain, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, spinning sensation, fullness in the ear, ringing in the ear, problems with balance or walking, or hearing loss, see a doctor.
A doctor will look into the ear with an instrument called an otoscope. An otoscope helps see inside the ear canal and eardrum to see if there is redness or swelling, build-up of earwax, or if there are any abnormalities in the ear. The doctor may gently puff air against the eardrum to see if it moves, which is normal. If it doesn't, this may indicate fluid buildup in the middle ear.
Inner ear infection symptoms such as dizziness and loss of balance can resemble other medical problems, so a doctor will rule out conditions that may cause the symptoms such as head injury, heart disease, stroke, side effects of medications, anxiety, and neurological disorders.
Other ways to tell if you have an inner or middle ear infection include:
- Most ear infections are infections of the middle ear (otitis media).
- Middle ear infections are commonly associated with upper respiratory infections (common cold), and a virus or bacteria may cause them.
- They are more common in children.
- Symptoms differ slightly from inner ear infections.
- Symptoms of middle ear infection include ear pain, fever, and ear discharge.
- Hearing reduction may also be noted with a middle ear infection. Since middle ear infections commonly occur with an upper respiratory infection (a "cold"), other symptoms of a middle ear infection include sinus pressure, sore throat, and runny nose.
- Nausea, vomiting, and dizziness usually are not symptoms of a middle ear infection.
Subscribe to MedicineNet's General Health Newsletter
Will antibiotics or other medication treat and cure inner ear infections?
Over-the-counter (OTC) and prescription medications may be used to treat symptoms associated with an inner ear infection.
Over-the-counter (OTC) medication
- Symptoms of nausea, vomiting, dizziness, and vertigo may be relieved with diphenhydramine (Benadryl).
- Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may be taken to relieve pain. Do not give children and teenagers aspirin as this has been linked with a serious condition called Reye's syndrome. AVOID: cold and cough medicines, especially in young children, as these can have dangerous side effects.
- Steroids such as prednisone may help with inflammation.
- Antibiotics or antiviral medications to treat the infection
- Nausea may be controlled with:
- If you become dehydrated from severe vomiting, you may need medical treatment with intravenous (IV) fluids.
What home remedies relieve ear pain and other symptoms?
Home remedies cannot treat or cure an inner ear infection, but they may help relieve ear pain and other symptoms.
- A warm compress may ease pain
- Standing or keeping your head upright while sitting can help drain the ear
- A saltwater gargle may help clear Eustachian tubes and soothe a sore throat.
- Do not smoke and limit alcohol intake
- Use stress management techniques to control emotional and psychological stress because it can worsen symptoms
Some natural remedies and alternative treatments are touted as treatments or cures for inner ear infections, including garlic oil or tea tree oil eardrops, apple cider vinegar, basil, olive oil, and hydrogen peroxide. Scientific studies do not show any of these to be effective.
Some chiropractors also claim to be able to treat inner ear infections with manipulation. There are currently no studies that show chiropractic to be effective.
Talk to your doctor before using any home remedies for an ear infection.
How can I prevent an inner ear infection?
An inner ear infection itself is not contagious, but the viruses and bacteria that may cause them are. To prevent infection, practice good hygiene.
- Wash your hands frequently
- Avoid sharing food and drinks, especially with someone you know to have an ear infection
- Don't smoke and avoid secondhand smoke
FamilyDoctor.org. "Ear Infection." June 2017. <https://familydoctor.org/condition/ear-infection/>.
Honor Society of Nursing (STTI). "How long do bacterial ear infections last?" <https://www.sharecare.com/health/ear-disorders/long-bacterial-ear-infections-last>.
Kemper, Kathi J. "Complementary and alternative medicine in pediatrics." Dec. 2017. <https://www.uptodate.com/contents/complementary-and-alternative-medicine-in-pediatrics>.
United States. NIH. "Ear Infections in Children." May 12, 2017. <https://www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/ear-infections-children>.
Top Inner Ear Infection Related Articles
Ear Infections: All About Ear ConditionsWhat's that? I can't hear you. Maybe it's tinnitus, or impacted ear wax, or cauliflower ear (yup, that's a thing). Find out what may be ailing your ears in this slideshow.
Ear Infection SlideshowLearn about the causes and symptoms of ear infections and how they are diagnosed and treated. Read about treatments such as ear tubes and antibiotics, which could prevent future ear infections.
Balance SlideshowWhat is vertigo? What causes dizziness? Understand different balance disorders and symptoms such as vertigo, motion sickness, nausea, and more.
Middle Ear Infection (Otitis Media)A middle ear infection (otitis media) can cause earache, temporary hearing loss, and pus drainage from the ear. It is most common in babies, toddlers, and young children. Learn about causes and treatment.
Ear Infection Home Treatment
Infections of the outer, middle, and inner ear usually are caused by viruses. Most outer (swimmer's ear) and middle ear (otitis media) infections can be treated at home with remedies like warm compresses for ear pain relief, tea tree, ginger, or garlic oil drops.
Symptoms of an outer ear (swimmer's ear) and middle ear infection include mild to severe ear pain, pus draining from the ear, swelling and redness in the ear, and hearing problems. Middle and inner ear infections may cause fever, and balance problems. Inner ear infections also may cause nausea, vomiting, vertigo, ringing in the ear, and labyrinthitis (inflammation of the inner ear).
Most outer and middle ear infections do not need antibiotics. Inner ear infections should be treated by a doctor specializing in ear and hearing problems.
Ear Infection QuizIs it possible to prevent ear infections? Take the Ear Infection (Otitis Media) Quiz to learn the risks, causes, symptoms and treatments for the common ear infection.
Illustrations of the EarThere are three sections of the ear, according to the anatomy textbooks. They are the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. See a picture of Ear Anatomy and learn more about the health topic.
Eustachian Tube DysfunctionThe Eustachian tube is a membrane-lined tube that connects the middle ear space to the back of the nose. Symptoms of Eustachian tube dysfunction or blockage include popping and/or clicking in the ear, and ear fullness and/or pain. Causes of Eustachian tube dysfunction or blockage include allergies, sinus infections, ear infections, and the common cold. Treatment includes home remedies to relieve pain and several maneuvers (swallowing, chewing gum, yawning, etc.), which can be done to improve Eustachian tube function. In severe cases, surgery may be necessary.
How Can I Dry Up Fluid in My Inner Ear?There are many ways for water to get into your ear. These five home remedies can help dry or drain the fluid from your ears.
How Do You Clear Blocked Eustachian Tubes?Learn what medical treatments can help ease your blocked eustachian tube symptoms and speed up your recovery for blocked eustachian tubes. Ear infections are common and usually go away on their own after a few days, even without medical treatment. Learn about causes and treatment.
Inner Ear Infection (Labyrinthitis)Labyrinthitis occurs when there is inflammation of the part of the ear responsible for balance and hearing), usually due to viral infections of the inner ear. Learn about causes, symptoms, and treatment.
A perforated (ruptured, punctured) eardrum (tympanic membrane) is a hole or tear in the eardrum. The eardrum separates the ear canal and middle ear. Most ruptured eardrums do not cause pain, however, the condition can be uncomfortable. Bacteria, viral, and fungal infections are the most common causes a ruptured eardrum. Earwax removal attempts, changes in air pressure, and trauma are other causes of a ruptured eardrum.
If you have a ruptured eardrum you may have symptoms like:
- Ear pain
- Partial or full hearing loss
- A mucousy or pus-like blood-tinged discharge from you ear
- Bleeding from the ear
- Ringing in the ear
- Middle ear infection
Most people do not need medical treatment for a ruptured eardrum, however, some may need surgery depending upon the cause and size of the hole in the eardrum.
REFERENCE: Cleveland Clinic. "Ruptured Eardrum (Perforated Tympanic Membrane)." Updated: Aug 208, 2014.
Sore throat (throat pain) usually is described as pain or discomfort in the throat area. A sore throat may be caused by bacterial infections, viral infections, toxins, irritants, trauma, or injury to the throat area. Common symptoms of a sore throat include a fever, cough, runny nose, hoarseness, earaches, sneezing, and body aches. Home remedies for a sore throat include warm soothing liquids and throat lozenges. OTC remedies for a sore throat include OTC pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen. Antibiotics may be necessary for some cases of sore throat.
StressStress is a normal part of life, but chronic or severe stress can be harmful to your health. Learn what happens in your body when you are stressed and how you can manage your response.
Stress QuizStress creeps into everyone's life at one time or another, while some people will suffer from poorly managed chronic stress. If you're suffering, there are things you can do. Take the Stress Quiz to learn what you can do to beat the long-term effects of chronic stress.
Tinnitus SlideshowWhat is tinnitus? Explore tinnitus (ringing in the ears) causes, symptoms, relief remedies, treatments and prevention tips. Learn about pulsatile tinnitus.
Vertigo QuizTake the quiz and find out the causes, symptoms, treatments, and ways to prevent the confusing balance disorder called vertigo.
What Can Trigger Vertigo?Vertigo is the sensation of spinning or rocking, even when someone is at rest. Vertigo may be caused by a problem in the brain or spinal cord or a problem within in the inner ear. Head injuries, certain medications, and female gender are associated with a higher risk of vertigo. Medical history, a physical exam, and sometimes an MRI or CT scan are required to diagnose vertigo. The treatment of vertigo may include medication, special exercises to reposition loose crystals in the inner ear, or exercises designed to help the patient re-establish a sense of equilibrium. Controlling risk factors for stroke (blood pressure, weight, cholesterol, and blood glucose) may decrease the risk of developing vertigo.