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Ear Infection Complications

Ear infection complications, though not common, do occur.

Temporary hearing loss can be a complication of ear infections. [© Shutterstock, 2010]
© Shutterstock, 2010
Temporary hearing loss can be a complication of ear infections.

Ear Infection Complications

Ear infection complications are not common. Middle ear infections usually clear up even without treatment in about three days, and outer ear infections respond well to eardrops much of the time. However, there are some instances in which complications from an ear infection arise, leading to issues such as ear damage, hearing loss or infection elsewhere in the body. Though the complications are rare, they can be quite serious. For this reason, parents and caregivers are advised to carefully monitor a childs ear infection and seek medical attention if the ear infection persists or recurs frequently.

Complications of Acute Middle Ear Infection

Recurring or long-lasting middle ear infections can lead to temporary or long-term hearing loss. Temporary hearing loss is caused by fluid buildup behind the eardrum, which makes it difficult for sound vibrations to travel. Temporary hearing loss lasts only as long as the fluid remains in the ear, which typically dissipates within several weeks. Long-term hearing loss, however, occurs when fluid remains in the middle ear for an extended period of time and ends up damaging the eardrum and the bones of the middle ear. The University of Maryland Medical Center states that when a young child has fluid in the middle ear that lasts for longer than 12 weeks, it is reason for concern because even temporary hearing loss may delay speech development or lead to speech and language disabilities. And, according to the Cleveland Clinic, children under the age of three are most susceptible to middle ear infections which is typically the crucial age of language development.

In addition to hearing loss, another possible complication of middle ear infection is a ruptured eardrum. The rupture is the result of fluid or pus exerting too much pressure on the eardrum. When a rupture occurs, it may produce a frightening discharge filled with blood or pus. Although scary, the patient usually feels better because it relieves the pain caused by the fluid under pressure. The eardrum typically heals by itself. However, before healing, the rupture may interrupt hearing or allow bacteria into the middle ear, which could cause another infection. Surgery may be needed if the eardrum ruptures several times and does not heal on its own.

If a middle ear infection is left untreated, it could lead to mastoiditis, an infection in the mastoid bone in the skull. This bone resembles a honeycombit is made up of air cells within the bone. The function of these cells is drainage of the middle ear. When a middle ear infection spreads to the mastoid bone, resulting in mastoiditis, the patient is at risk of serious complications such as brain abscesses and meningitis.

Complications of Middle Ear Infection With Effusion

A middle ear infection with effusion (fluid) may lead to an acute ear infection, a cyst in the middle ear, eardrum scarring, speech delay or permanent hearing loss. Though both partial and complete hearing losses are rare, their likelihood increases with each ear infection suffered.

Adverse reactions to antibiotics used to treat either middle ear infection with effusion or acute middle ear infection are also possible. Reactions to the medication may include vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, hives, yeast infections and anaphylactic reactions.

Complications of Outer Ear Infection

Like middle ear infection, an outer ear infection may lead to temporary hearing loss. With an outer ear infection, or swimmers ear, the patient may hear sounds muffled for the duration of the infection.

If an outer ear infection lasts for more than three months, it is considered chronic, according to the Mayo Clinic. An outer ear infection is more likely to be chronic if it is caused by a rare strain of bacteria or by a combination of bacteria and fungi. Chronic conditions are also common if an individual experiences an allergic skin reaction or an allergic reaction to the antibiotic used in treatment.

Some complications of swimmers ear are related to the infection spreading to other parts of the body. One such complication of chronic outer ear infection is cellulitis, an infection that spreads into the skins deep layers or connective tissues. Another possible complication is bone and cartilage damage, which is called necrotizing or malignant otitis externa. It is the result of the infection spreading to the cartilage of the outer ear and to the lower bones of the skull. This condition involves severe pain, as well as other symptoms such as hoarseness and difficulty swallowing. Individuals with weakened immune systems or diabetes are at greater risk of this complication. Outer ear infection may also spread to other parts of the body such as the nerves or brain. Although this complication is rare, it is serious and could even lead to death.

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