Inner ear infection (in adults and children) definition and facts
- 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 or otitis externa) 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 inner ear infection and include ear pain, fever, and ear discharge. Since middle ear infections commonly occur 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 2 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 balance.
Quick GuideTinnitus: Why Are My Ears Ringing?
Ear Infection Home Treatments and Remedies
Ear infections can occur in the outer ear (swimmer's ear, otitis externa), middle ear (otitis media), and inner ear (otitis interna). Natural and home remedies
to treat pain include:
- Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen (Advil) and acetaminophen
- Applying a warm compress on the infected ear.
- Applying naturopathic ear drops with ginger, tea tree, or olive oil may help with
pain and inflammation.
Talk with your doctor or pediatrician before using any herbal or
naturopathic medicine for ear infections.
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 an 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, cochlea, vestibular nerve, and auditory nerve.
Picture of the Anatomy of the Ear
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)
- Feeling of fullness in the ear
- Ringing in the ear (tinnitus) or hearing abnormal sounds
The symptoms of inner ear infections are very similar to other inner ear disorders such as labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis.
What causes inner ear infections?
The most common cause of an inner ear infection is a virus. Viruses associated with inner ear infections include influenza, herpes viruses, Epstein-Barr virus, and polio. Less frequently, the cause of an inner ear infection may be bacterial.
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, which 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.
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 becase it can worsen symptoms
Some natural remedies and alternative treatments are touted as treatment or cures for inner ear infections, including garlic oil or tea tree oil ear drops, 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
Children should be vaccinated, specifically with pneumococcal conjugate vaccine and the H. flu vaccine to protect against several types of pneumococcal and H. flu bacterial ear infections.
Medically Reviewed on 1/26/2018
American Academy of Family Physicians. Otis Media. July 2013.
familydoctor.org. Ear Infection. Updated: June 2017.
Honor Society of Nursing (STTI). How long do bacterial ear infections last?
Kathi J Kemper, MD, MPH. Complementary and alternative medicine in pediatrics. Updated: Dec 2017.
NIH. Ear Infections in Children. Updated: May 12, 2017.