Ear infections are the most common illness for which parents take their children to the doctor. A common childhood condition, ear infections can occur so frequently that children and parents alike may take them in stride, treating subsequent incidents as “not that bad.” In most cases, infections do resolve with little or no treatment.
However, there are situations where ear infections don’t fully resolve. In these cases, chronic infection can lead to serious complications that may compromise your child’s hearing or lead to systemic infection. While less common, adults aren’t immune to complications from ear infections, either. Middle ear infections, medically called otitis media, can affect anyone of any age.
The middle ear, located behind the eardrum, is usually a dry area supplied by fresh air through the eustachian tubes. When these tubes become blocked, such as when you have a cold, the middle ear becomes a warm and damp breeding ground for bacteria, which may even enter the area by way of the blocked eustachian tubes.
One reason children suffer from ear infections more often is due to the condition of their youthful eustachian tubes, which can collapse more easily than they will later in life. This leads to blockages creating the germ-laden environments that infections thrive on.
Multiple infections over several months may indicate the eustachian tubes aren’t functioning well. This could increase the chances of complications resulting from middle ear infections.
The progression of ear infection follows several different courses, and the frequency of these infections may also create long-term complications. Though still rare, the following are some of the more common complications resulting from middle ear infections.
Small holes in the eardrum aren’t uncommon during ear infections. After a single infection clears, the tiny hole heals without ill effect. When a child suffers persistent and recurring infections, however, the ear doesn’t have sufficient time to recover.
Holes may not reseal and over time become larger with each subsequent infection. Since the eardrum is the first stage of the hearing process, hearing could be permanently affected.
Temporary hearing loss during a single ear infection is a common symptom that typically reverses when the infection clears. Just as with eardrum perforations, recurring infections interrupt the normal healing cycle. This may result in a buildup of scar tissue that interferes with sound reaching the auditory nerve.
Called conductive hearing loss, the physical motion of the bones of the middle ear gets restricted. In some cases, surgery may repair the damage, but this isn’t an option for everyone.
Recurring ear infections may create a mass of skin cells in the middle ear called a cholesteatoma that, left untreated, may cause damage to many of the structures within the ear. The bones of the hearing mechanism may erode, as can bone between the ear and brain. The auditory nerve itself may be damaged, as can the nerves responsible for facial movements.
A porous bone that helps with fluid drainage in the ear, the mastoid itself may become infected and inflamed. Swelling of the mastoid bone is an emergency, requiring immediate attention that may include antibiotics delivered intravenously, an emergency ear drain, or possibly surgery to remove infected bone tissue. Chronic mastoiditis can result in bone damage and the spread of infection, causing brain abscesses or meningitis.
Despite their common nature, no ear infection should be treated lightly, particularly when they’re recurring. Call Southern ENT or request an appointment from our website to investigate the status of your child’s ear infection.