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How Ear Infections Affect Hearing Ability

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Ear infections are incredibly common, especially amongst children, and can cause significant pain and discomfort. However, perhaps the most troubling consequence of ear infections is the fact that they can compromise a person’s ability to hear – a fact that we will discuss in more detail below.

What is an ear infection?

When we say “ear infection,” it’s important to note that there are several different infections that fall under this classification, with the following the most common:

  • Otitis externa: Affects the external parts of the ear.
  • Otitis media: Affects the middle ear.

Both of the above infections share similar symptoms:

  • A high temperature
  • Pain in and around the ear or neck
  • Swelling and redness
  • Discharge, which is often white or yellow, from the ear

However, there are specific symptoms that can help to differentiate between the two:

  • Otitis externa: The outer ear appears to be inflamed and red, and is especially sore to the touch
  • Otitis media: A feeling of “fullness” in the ear is common, and balance issues may also occur

How are ear infections treated?

It is always important to seek medical assistance if you, or your child, have the symptoms of an ear infection. As with any infection, there can be complications, so seeking the advice of an ENT specialist is strongly advised.

In terms of treating the condition, initially, most doctors may wait and see if the infection improves on its own, especially if the diagnosis is otitis externa. Often, the body needs to be given time to fight back against the infection, so for the most part, treatment comprises of easing discomfort as the primary goal. Soothing ear sprays and pain medication can be used to ensure the person with the ear infection feels comfortable until the infection is remedied.

However, some ear infections can be persistent and require more significant treatment. Antibiotics, ear drops and sprays can be used at this point, though capsule antibiotics can also be taken orally. As always, if you are prescribed antibiotics, it is essential to ensure that you finish the full amount.

How can ear infections affect hearing ability?

When the infection – be it otitis externa or otitis media – is active, then hearing tends to be compromised due to the body’s response to the infection. As the ear canal becomes swollen, sounds become muffled and, in some cases, the person will entirely lose their ability to hear in the affected ear. In the vast majority of cases, swelling-induced hearing loss is temporary; when the infection is resolved, the swelling goes down, and normal hearing ability is restored.

However, otitis media infections can cause more long-term issues with hearing loss. When the middle ear becomes infected, fluid can build up inside the ear, which cannot be cleared, resulting in hearing loss.

How is fluid buildup treated?

In some cases, fluid buildup in the middle ear will resolve naturally without further intervention – though this can take up to three months. Nevertheless, it is always important to seek further medical advice if you, or your child, experience lingering hearing loss after an infection.

However, if fluid buildup persists – or a person experiences repeated infections that cause the condition to continue to reoccur – then a surgical remedy can be considered. This surgery, known as ear tube surgery, is relatively straightforward:

  • The operation is performed as an outpatient procedure
  • The surgeon will make a small hole in the affected eardrum
  • The fluid is then drained via suction
  • A small metal or plastic tube is then inserted to help allow air to the middle ear, which helps to prevent ear infections from recurring in future

Most commonly, ear tube surgery is performed on children but can be considered for adults who have experienced issues with recurrent ear infections also. For those who do undergo ear tube surgery, the results are favorable; people experience fewer ear infections, and any infections that do develop tend to resolve relatively quickly.

When a person is experiencing an ear infection, their hearing ability can be compromised – primarily due to swelling, but also due to fluid buildup in the middle ear. While these issues tend to resolve when the infection is no longer present, sometimes, fluid buildup can continue and may potentially require surgery to remedy.

If you believe that you, or your child, have an ear infection, then seeking the advice of an ENT professional is highly recommended.

To learn more about how the doctors at ENT Physicians Inc. can help you handle chronic ear infections, contact our office today at 419-776-5028.