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The Silent Threat of Ear Infections

Can An Ear Infection Cause Hearing Loss?

The short answer: yes. Ear Infections if untreated can contribute to hearing loss, but the good news is that it can be treatable.

The Ear Pain That Won’t Go Away

You wake one morning with a pain in your ear. Chances are you have an ear infection. Although ear infections are most common in babies and young children, with most following a cold, flu, or respiratory infection.

Types of Ear Infections

There are two otitis media, or ear infections in the middle ear, that are most common.

  • Acute otitis media – This occurs when the eustachian tube, the tiny channel that connects the middle ear to the upper respiratory tract (mainly the ear, nose and throat), becomes inflamed from a virus or bacteria. The inflammation creates fluid buildup. When infected, the fluid buildup can cause pain, swelling, and sometimes, hearing impairment.
  • Otitis media with effusion This occurs when fluid or mucus begins to build in the eustachian tube after an infection has cleared up.
  • Chronic suppurative otitis media – Discharge from the middle ear caused by a puncture or damage to the eardrum. This occurs from complications of an ongoing acute otitis media infection. 
  • Adhesive otitis media – The collapse of the eardrum. This occurs when the eustachian tube ceases to function properly for a prolonged period.
  • Otitis externa – Also known as swimmer’s ear occurs in the outer ear canal and generally happens when water remnants get trapped in the ear.

Ear Infection Symptoms

Symptoms of ear infections in adults and young children can include:

  • Fever – Fever is a sign that the body is trying to fight off infection.
  • Ear drainage – Pus or yellow or bloody fluid draining out the ear can signify a ruptured eardrum.
  • Trouble hearing – Temporary hearing loss can occur when fluid builds up in the middle ear.
  • Balance issues – Fluid in the middle ear can lead to unsteadiness and dizziness.
  • Middle ear pressure shifts when lying down – The pressure can cause an inability to get comfortable when lying down. 
  • Diarrhea – Diarrhea or vomiting can be a symptom of an ear infection.

If someone develops an ear infection, they’ll usually see ease of these symptoms within 48 to 72 hours; however, the fluid buildup in the middle ear may linger for up to three months.

Ear Infection Treatment

Most ear infections are treated with a “wait and see” approach by monitoring the symptoms to see if they go away or get worse. Should the symptoms of an ear infection not improve after three days or the infection itself not dissipate within two weeks, it may be time to see a doctor and seek treatment. 

Doctors can diagnose an ear infection with an exam and through the symptoms you describe. This is usually done through an otoscope, a black lighted device that can look at your ears, nasal passage, and throat.

Treatments that your doctor may prescribe or that you can pursue on your own may include:

  • Over the counter pain medication – This can include aspirin, acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) to manage and relieve pain.
  • Anesthetic drops – This method can be used to relieve pain, but only if the infected eardrum doesn’t have a hole.
  • Antibiotics – In some cases, a doctor may prescribe antibiotics. If this is the case, it’s imperative that you take all the antibiotics as directed. Failing to take the antibiotics in its entirety can result in a resistance to bacteria to antibiotic medications and/or a recurring infection.
  • Drainage – This procedure is called a myringotomy. Your doctor makes a small hole in the infected eardrum so water, pus, and/or blood can drain out. In some cases, the doctor may place a tube to prevent future buildup. The tube will usually fall out naturally in around 6 to 18 months and can help to reduce pain and improve hearing.
  • Gargling – Gargle with salt water to clear the Eustachian tubes.
  • Heat therapy – Using a heat compress can bring comfort from pain.
  • Rest
  • Drinking plenty of water 

Bottom line, ear infections can be uncomfortable and painful, but the hearing loss that can come from them is usually not permanent. Should you, your children, or grandchildren experience symptoms of an ear infection and need to seek treatment, reach out to your doctor or hearing care provider to receive an exam. If you don’t have a hearing provider and are looking for one in your area, you can find one here.