What parent hasn’t been completely flummoxed by the pain their child feels due to an unrelenting earache or ear infection? The ear is foreign territory to most people and often never thought of in any depth until a problem of some sort arises, but is it too late at that point?
An ear infection can cause temporary and reversible loss of hearing. In some cases, however, an ear infection can also become much more detrimental, leaving permanent hearing loss if left unchecked for extended periods. Generally, hearing loss due to an ear infection is caused when the infection blocks or otherwise inhibits sound from successfully passing through the middle ear to the inner ear. Sound may still reach the inner ear, but it will be related as muffled, quiet, indistinct, or distant.
Types of Ear Infections
Ear Canal – an infection or other inflammation or buildup (exudate) of the ear canal (known as otitis externa) is a condition commonly known as swimmer’s ear. The inflammation in the ear canal prevents sounds heard from moving to the middle ear. Generally, this loss of hearing is temporary and will subside once the infection has been cleared away.
Middle Ear – An infection or swelling in the middle ear is known as otitis media and can also have the effect of preventing sound, whether totally or partially, from reaching the inner ear. Like otitis externa, otitis media often subsides once the infection has been cleared and the resulting swelling reduced as this essentially alleviates the blockage. The danger with a middle ear infection comes when untreated hearing loss becomes more permanent loss of hearing by damaging the structures of the middle ear. While most infections will clear up on their own over time, it is wise to seek out a physician and possibly antibiotic treatments if infections persist.
Behind the Eardrum – otitis media with effusion is commonly known as fluid build-up in the space behind the eardrum. Unlike the previous examples, this fluid build-up may occur with or without infection, either way, the fluid will distort sound by once again blocking its inhibited passage to the inner ear. While this fluid will often clear up on its own, it is imperative to be careful as the eardrum can burst if the fluid becomes infected or otherwise over/under-pressurized.
Cochlea – Viruses can attack the cochlea which is the primary sensory organ of the ear and thus vital to hearing. In these cases, the hearing loss experienced is often very sudden and dramatic. Doctors and scientists understand far less about this type of infection and believe the virus may be the same one that causes the flu and the common cold. In the case of a viral infection of the cochlea, hearing may or may not return once the infection has been dispelled. Sometimes only partial hearing is returned and sometimes hearing returns only after prolonged periods of healing.
Causes of Ear Infections
In children, who are generally much more susceptible to infections of the ear than adults, these infections often coincide with or develop as a result of an upper respiratory infections like the above-mentioned influenza and the common cold.
If the infection causes inflammation in the back of the throat, it can affect the Eustachian tubes of the inner ears which connect the inner ear to the throat. If the swelling reaches a Eustachian tube it prevents the tube from performing its primary duty, to regulate the pressure in the middle ear space to match that of the outside world. As a result, pressure builds up in the middle ear, the cavity behind the tympanic membrane (eardrum), preventing normal secretions from draining away through the Eustachian tube. This excess fluid combined with negative pressure can cause pain, dizziness, and even hearing loss.
Ear pain can be debilitatingly painful and should never be taken lightly. If the pain and swelling won’t subside within a week it is wise to seek out medical counseling. If ear infections become a chronic problem, they may be signs of a larger problem in the development of the inner or middle ear structures. Either way, it is important to speak to a doctor if you or your children experience frequent infections, specifically if they seem somewhat unprompted as untreated hearing loss can quickly become permanent.
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If you’ve noticed changes in your hearing due to ear infection and are struggling with communication, contact us today. We provide comprehensive hearing health services and we’re here to help!