How Inner Ear Infections Affect Balance

The ear is for hearing, yes, but also for balance. The outer ear channels sounds from around us into the ear's labyrinth. The sound waves travel down the ear canal where they hit the ear drum. The vibrations affect fluid and bones behind the drum and send messages to the brain which it interprets as music, traffic, voices, or a clock ticking.

All this is amazing, yet, besides hearing, the ear has another equally important function of helping the human body keep balance. The parts of the inner ear must work together to let the brain know which way is up. Ear infections can mess up the system and affect balance.

Organs for Balance
The balance (vestibular) system has five parts that work together to tell the brain if we are up or down, moving, turning or standing still. These five organs contain fluid chambers.
Each of the semicircular canals has a bulb at its base with hair cells and a gel-like substance. Above this gel-like layer is a layer of tiny calcium stones that move with the fluid in the canal. When the hairs move, they send a message to tell the brain how the head moved.

Each canal produces signals that mesh and combine with more signals from the saccule and the utricle to send to the cochlea, which has the job of changing the signals into electrical impulses that the brain can understand. It all happens faster than a computation of a super fast computer, so that even a child can keep his balance when spinning, turning, running, bending and rising and stretching.

Fluid in the inner ear is normal, but if the eustachian tubes are not draining, the fluid can build up and disturb balance. Or fluid can build up because of an infection and cause a loss of balance.

Ear Infections Can Hurt Balance
When ear infections prevent one or both of the ears from functioning correctly a child may fall, experience dizziness even when turning over in bed, feel woozy, become disorientated and/or have blurred vision. The child may become nauseated and frightened.

Any time you notice your child suddenly losing his balance, consult a doctor to find the cause. Antibiotics might help resolve the trouble, but the body may heal the infection just as fast if left alone. (Studies show 80% of ear infections heal without intervention.) A pediatrician is best at determining if antibiotics are needed. A follow up check is probably needed to ensure that the infection has resolved.

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