Can Ear Infections Cause Hearing Loss?

Ear infections are painful, but do they cause long-term damage?

In this article, we delve into the critical question about how ear infections cause hearing loss, especially in childhood otitis media.

Infected Ears and Hearing Loss

If your doctor uses the words ‘acute otitis media,’ they are referring to an infection in your middle ear. The word ‘acute’ refers to the fact the infection is temporary and treatable, compared to a long term, chronic infection.

Acute otitis media needs urgent medical attention. That’s because an affected person can suffer hearing loss due to the infection if it is left to brew. The short-to-medium-term outcomes according to Mayo Clinics are:

  1. Acute otitis media can clear up on its own, in which case managing pain and monitoring the problem are all that’s needed.
  2. However, if it lingers the doctor may prescribe an anti-inflammatory, even antibiotics as a boost to the immune system.
  3. In some cases, the condition may repeat a number of times. These multiple ear infections may cause permanent hearing loss.
  4. If left untreated, the patient could develop conductive and sensorineural hearing loss, leading to them becoming permanently deaf from the ear infection.

How Otitis Media Affects the Workings of the Inner Ear

Here is a photo of Ottis Media, a visual of the ear and how an infection might occur.

Ear Infection from Otitis Media (Image Bruce Blaus BY CC 4.0)

The infection occurs in the middle ear space, where our tiny, vibrating bone sound receptors are. Common symptoms include acute pain from the pressure of liquid discharge, temporary hearing loss due to the infection, discharge from the ear, and diarrhea in infants.

Acute otitis media is often the consequence of an upper respiratory infection, where frequent coughing and nose-blowing put pressure on the inner ear via the eustachian tube, causing the immune response. The onset of the symptoms and ‘numb hearing’ are usually rapid.

Diagnosing the Ear Infection as First Step to Preventing Hearing Loss

Diagnosing Acute Otitis Media in Adults

An adult sufferer usually reports some hearing loss as their infection develops.  However, the most alarming symptom may be an acute pain, when they blow their nose to clear the mucus from an accompanying upper respiratory infection.

This is an indication their eustacian tube is blocked, or their tympanic membrane ear drum is inflamed and draining fluid. A child or adult can become mildly-to-moderately deaf from an ear infection, and therefore need urgent medical attention before something like this happens.

Perforated Membrane from Severe Acute Otitis Media (Image Michael Hawke BY CC 4.0)

Diagnosing Acute Otitis Media in Children

It’s more difficult to diagnose this condition when young children are in pain and can’t clearly articulate how they are feeling. Mayo Clinic suggests looking for the following symptoms of which not all may be present.

  1. Ear pain, particularly when lying down as the pressure increases
  2. Touching gingerly, or plugging / pulling the infected ear
  3. Signs of hearing loss, due to infection in one or both ears
  4. Having difficulty hearing or reacting to sounds including speech
  5. High fever (100 ºF [38 ºC] or higher), headache, loss of balance
  6. Difficulty sleeping, crying more than usual, listless, disinterested

Consulting a Doctor to Avoid Ear Infection-Related Hearing Loss

An acute otitis media ear infection - that may lead to transient or permanent hearing loss - begins when a bacteria or virus infects the middle ear. White blood cells create an immune response, releasing fluid that causes the congestion.

A parallel illness – cold, flu or allergy perhaps – can increase the fluid build-up in, and pressure on, the nasal passages, throat and eustachian tubes. The clock may be ticking in the direction of ear infection hearing loss, particularly in the case of a young child.

Mayo Clinic recommends calling a doctor if the symptoms last longer than a day, especially in the case of a child younger than six months. To recap, the warning signs are one or more of severe ear pain, fluid or puss discharge, sleeplessness and irritability.

Dealing With Hearing Loss from Acute Otitis Media

Otitis Media is one of the most frequently-diagnosed bacterial illnesses in young children in the United States, according to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Kids seldom go deaf from an ear infection, although the likelihood of some hearing loss increases with multiple occurrences.

The chickens often come home to roost as we become older, and our hearing systems generally begin to wind down. By then, it’s often too late to do anything about the root causes. However, a decent pair of digital hearing aids can make a deal of difference, by helping us hear better again.

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