Labyrinthitis is a combination of the symptoms of vestibular neuritis combined with hearing loss. Vestibular labyrinthitis is an inflammatory disorder of the labyrinth component of the inner ear which controls hearing and balance. The labyrinth is composed of a fluid filled compartment surrounded by an outer bony framework containing membranes which contain and support the peripheral sensory organs for balance and hearing. These organs include the utricle, the saccule, the semi-circular canals and the cochlea. Labyrinthitis occurs when bacteria or viruses invade the membranes of the labyrinth and damage the vestibular and auditory organs. Other causes of damage also exist.
Bacterial and viral labyrinthitis are characterized by a sudden unilateral (one sided) loss of vestibular function, tinnitus, hearing loss, nystagmus (involuntary jerking of the eye ball) and an acute onset of severe and incapacitating vertigo, which is frequently accompanied by nausea and vomiting. Vertigo typically resolves after several days to weeks, however, balance problems may persist for several months. In most cases a history of otitis media or an upper respiratory tract infection precedes the onset of symptoms in up to 50% of cases. Some cases are caused as a result of cholesteatoma or the taking of ototoxic medications.
A rare form of viral labyrinthitis is herpes zoster oticus or Ramsay-Hunt syndrome. The cause of this disorder is the reactivation of a latent varicella-zoster virus infection occurring years after the primary infection. The initial symptoms are deep, burning auricular pain followed by a rash inside of the auditory canal, vertigo, permanent hearing loss, and facial weakness.