Overview

Meniere's disease is a disorder of the inner ear that causes episodes in which you feel as if you're spinning (vertigo), and you have fluctuating hearing loss with a progressive, ultimately permanent loss of hearing, ringing in the ear (tinnitus), and sometimes a feeling of fullness or pressure in your ear. In most cases, Meniere's disease affects only one ear.

Meniere's disease can occur at any age, but it usually starts between the ages of 20 and 50. It's considered a chronic condition, but various treatments can help relieve symptoms and minimize the long-term impact on your life.

Symptoms

Signs and symptoms of Meniere's disease include:

  • Recurring episodes of vertigo. You have a spinning sensation that starts and stops spontaneously. Episodes of vertigo occur without warning and usually last 20 minutes to several hours, but not more than 24 hours. Severe vertigo can cause nausea and vomiting.
  • Hearing loss. Hearing loss in Meniere's disease may come and go, particularly early on. Eventually, most people have some permanent hearing loss.
  • Ringing in the ear (tinnitus). Tinnitus is the perception of a ringing, buzzing, roaring, whistling or hissing sound in your ear.
  • Feeling of fullness in the ear. People with Meniere's disease often feel pressure in the affected ears (aural fullness) or on the side of their heads.

After an episode, signs and symptoms improve and might disappear entirely. Episodes can occur weeks to years apart.

When to see a doctor

See your doctor if you have signs or symptoms of Meniere's disease. Because any one of them can result from other illnesses, it's important to get an accurate diagnosis as soon as possible.

Causes

The cause of Meniere's disease isn't understood. One popular theory that hasn't been proved is that Meniere's disease appears to be the result of the abnormal amount of fluid (endolymph) in the inner ear. This often shows on autopsies, but it's not clear that it causes the episodes.

Factors that affect the fluid, which might contribute to Meniere's disease, include:

  • Improper fluid drainage, perhaps because of a blockage or anatomic abnormality
  • Abnormal immune response
  • Allergies
  • Viral infection
  • Genetic predisposition
  • Head trauma
  • Migraines

Because no single cause has been identified, it's likely that Meniere's disease results from a combination of factors.

Complications

The unpredictable episodes of vertigo and the prospect of permanent hearing loss can be the most difficult problems of Meniere's disease. The disease can interrupt your life and cause fatigue, emotional stress, depression and anxiety.

Vertigo can cause you to lose balance, increasing your risk of falls and accidents while driving or operating heavy machinery.