Otitis media is the medical name for what you probably call an ear infection. Ear infections like this are often seen in babies and young children but they can affect adults, as well, especially during or after a cold or sinus infection. Even a bad tooth can lead to an ear infection.
Hearing loss is one of the primary symptoms of an infection in the middle ear, but is it permanent? The answer to this question might be more complicated than you think. There are a lot of things going on with ear infections. To understand the risks, you need to know more about the damage these infections can cause and how they affect hearing.
What is Otitis Media?
Put simply, otitis media is an infection of the middle ear. It could be any kind of microorganism causing the infection but bacteria is the most common.
Ear infections are defined by where they occur in the ear. When the infection is in the pinna, or outer ear, or in front of the eardrum, the condition is otitis externa or swimmer’s ear. If the bacterial growth is in the cochlea, the term is labyrinthitis or inner ear infection.
The middle ear consists of the space behind the eardrum but in front of the cochlea. This area houses the three ossicles, or tiny bones, that vibrate the membranes of the inner ear. An infection in this area tends to be very painful because it puts pressure on the eardrum, usually until it breaks. That pressure is also why you can’t hear very well. The infectious material builds up and blocks the ear canal enough to interfere with the movement of sound waves.
The symptoms of a middle ear infection in an adult include:
- Drainage from the ear
- Ear pain
- Diminished hearing
For most people, hearing returns over time. The pressure dissipates and the ear canal opens up. The infection gets resolved and your hearing comes back. There are exceptions, though.
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Chronic Ear Infections
Most people experience an ear infection at least once in their lifetime. For others, the problem becomes chronic, so they have infections over and over. Chronic ear infections can lead to complications that mean a more significant and possibly permanent hearing loss, especially if the problem is left untreated.
Conductive Hearing Loss From Ear Infections
Ear infections can cause conductive hearing loss. In other words, sound waves can’t get to the inner ear at the proper strength. The ear has mechanisms along the canal the amplify the sound wave, so by the time it reaches the tiny hair cells of the inner ear, it is strong enough to cause a vibration. With a conductive hearing loss, something changes along that route and the sound isn’t amplified as much.
Bacteria don’t just sit and behave in the ear when you have an ear infection. They need to eat to survive, so they break down those mechanisms that amplify sound waves. Usually, this kind of damage involves the eardrum and the tiny little bones. The bones are very delicate and it doesn’t take much to break them up. Once they are gone, they stay gone. That’s permanent damage and your hearing won’t return. In some cases, surgeons can install prosthetic bones to restore hearing. The eardrum can repair itself but might have scar tissue affecting its ability to move. Surgery can fix that, as well.
What Can You Do to Prevent This Permanent Hearing Loss?
First and foremost, see a doctor if you think you have an ear infection. The sooner you get treatment, the better. Second, don’t ignore chronic ear infections. The more serious infections you have, the more damage they cause. Finally, take steps to prevent colds, allergies and sinus infections because that is where ear infections usually start. If you are a smoker, now is the time to stop, too, because smoking increases your risk of having chronic respiratory problems.
If you’ve had an ear infection and still are having problems hearing, see your doctor. It is possible you have some damage, but that is not the only thing that causes conductive hearing loss. If it turns out it is permanent, hearing aids will help you hear once again.