Have you ever had an ear infection? Chances are you considered it to be more of a pain (literally) and a nuisance than anything serious, but ear infections aren’t always as harmless as many believe.
This common occurrence, seen in children primarily due to the size and position of their Eustachian tubes, is nothing to take lightly. Ongoing research is building upon what some have known all along – that ear infections can lead to serious complications.
What Is An Ear Infection?
Ear infections, known officially as acute otitis media, are a bacterial or viral infection of the middle ear. They are often a result of colds and allergies when congestion can develop. As with any infection, there can be severe inflammation and with this a buildup of fluid. Ear infections are most commonly treated with antibiotics and in extreme cases with surgery. Common symptoms of ear infections include:
- Ear pain
- Fluid draining from the ear
- Some hearing loss
In kids, these may also present as:
- Pulling at the ear
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
While some ear infections do resolve on their own, it’s important to see a healthcare provider early to manage and treat the infection before it turns into something bigger.
Untreated Ear Infections
For many, ear infections are a temporary and painful part of life that is easily treated. In some cases, however, when an ear infection goes untreated, is unusually severe or doesn’t respond to treatment, it can cause permanent damage and complications that many don’t think of when they think of ear infections.
- Hearing Loss – Initially, an ear infection may cause a temporary conductive hearing loss due to fluid buildup. In some cases, when left untreated, ear infections can cause permanent damage to the inner workings of the ear resulting in hearing loss.
- Speech and Developmental Delays – While this potential complication is still being studied, some researchers believe that frequent ear infections and the associated conductive hearing loss may lead to delayed speech development.
- Neurological Complications – Untreated ear infections have also been linked to several neurological complications including:
- Facial paralysis
- Brain abscesses
- Bacterial meningitis
- Acute Mastoiditis – This severe infection of the mastoid bone requires IV antibiotics and a drainage tube for treatment. When left untreated, this too can result in more severe complications.
In a recent report in the journal Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, otolaryngologists Michael Hutz, MD, Dennis Moore, MD, and Andrew Hotaling, MD. wrote:
“Antibiotic therapy has greatly reduced the frequency of complications of otitis media. However, it is of vital importance to remain aware of the possible development of neurologic complication. . . . In order to reduce morbidity, early deployment of a multidisciplinary approach with prompt imaging and laboratory studies is imperative to guide appropriate management.”
If you experience any symptoms of an ear infection or notice your children exhibiting typical signs of an ear infection, don’t delay seeking treatment. Contact your doctor or healthcare provider to get checked and start treatment if needed.
If you are affected by hearing loss, especially sudden hearing loss, contact your hearing healthcare provider to rule out underlying conditions such as an ear infection.