What is an ear infection? An ear infection is a bacterial or viral infection that affects the middle ear or the space behind the eardrum and the ear’s bones. Inflammation and fluid buildup behind the eardrum causes pressure and pain for the person. Usually the infection is caused by a cold or flu or allergies causing congestion and inflammation of the throat, Eustachian tubes and nasal passages; in some cases, a person may have a chronic ear infection which can then lead to hearing loss. Hearing loss usually occurs with ear infections, though most of the time they are temporary due to the inflammation and fluid buildup in the ear; however, chronic ear infections can cause permanent hearing damage.
Acute otitis media is an ear infection that is short lived and causes by a cold or flu or allergies. There is a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum and some inflammation. The ear aches and a fever is sometimes present, but will go away.
If the ear infection lasts more than a couple weeks or keeps reoccurring, it is called chronic otitis media, meaning there are more underlying issues that need to be looked at by a doctor and/or hearing professional as permanent hearing loss could occur.
If there is a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum from either an ear infection or if it does not drain properly on its own, this is called otitis media with effusion, meaning that the fluid can distort the hearing causing a temporary hearing loss. However, if the fluid remains with increased pressure on the eardrum, the eardrum could burst, which can therefore lead to an infection and a conductive hearing loss in the present or future.
Typically an ear infection will cause a conductive hearing loss due to the decreased flexibility of the eardrum from the fluid and pressure behind the ear drum. This can be anywhere from a 24-45dB loss in hearing depending on the thickness of the fluid, the pressure on the eardrum and the inflammation. For most it will sound as though they are wearing earplugs or are underwater. This usually goes away once the ear infection has cleared; however, if chronic ear infections or a burst eardrum occurs from otitis media with effusion, a more permanent hearing loss can occur. Usually a conductive hearing loss ensues, but depending on the severity of the infection and where the infection occurred, a sensorineural hearing loss or even a mixed hearing loss may occur.
If the fluid behind the eardrum is not draining properly, a tympanostomy tube may be placed in the eardrumto help with drainage to decrease the risk of infection, perforation of the eardrum and hearing loss.
As with any problem involving the ear, a doctor or hearing health professional should be seem to determine the problem and the proper course of action to fix it. With ear infections, especially chronic ear infections, a health care professional should be seen to help ensure there is not a bigger problem and to reduce the risk of hearing loss as much as possible.