What is typically labeled as an ear infection, is medically called otitis media or AOM. Ear infections such as this are commonly found in infants and young children but they can affect adults, as well, particularly during or after a cold or sinus infection. You can even get an ear infection from a bad tooth.
When you have an infection in the middle ear you will most likely have some loss of hearing, but will it go away? The answer to this question may be more complicated than you may think. There are many variables to take into consideration. To understand the risks, you need to learn more about the damage these infections can cause and how they impact hearing.
Otitis Media, Exactly What is it?
The easiest way to understand otitis media is that it’s an infection of the middle ear. It could be any kind of microorganism causing the infection but bacteria is the most common.
It’s what part of the ear the infection happens in that defines it. The outer ear, which is medically known as the pinna, is where swimmer’s ear develops, which is called otitis externa. If the bacterial growth occurs in the cochlea, the term is labyrinthitis or inner ear infection.
The middle ear is comprised of the space behind the eardrum but in front of the cochlea. This area houses the three ossicles, or very small 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, often until it actually breaks. That pressure is also why you don’t hear very well. Sound waves are then hindered by the buildup of infectious material in the ear canal.
A middle ear infection includes the following symptoms:
- Drainage from the ear
- Ear pain
- Decreased ability to hear
Over time, hearing will come back for most people. The pressure goes away and the ear canal opens up. This will only happen when the infection is resolved. Sometimes there are complications, however.
Chronic Ear Infections
Ear infections happen to most people at least once in their life. Some people, however, will get ear infections again and again and they will become chronic. Chronic ear infections can result in complications that mean a more significant and possibly permanent loss of hearing, 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 reach the inner ear with enough strength. The ear has mechanisms along the canal that amplify the sound wave so by the time it gets to the tiny hair cells of the inner ear, it is powerful enough to trigger a vibration. With a conductive hearing loss, something changes along that route and the sound isn’t amplified quite as much.
Bacteria don’t just sit and do nothing inside the ear when you get an ear infection. The components that amplify sound waves are broken down and eaten by the bacteria. The eardrum and the tiny little bones are what is commonly affected. It doesn’t take very much to break down these fragile bones. Once they are gone, their gone. You don’t just get your hearing back once this damage occurs. Surgically installing prosthetic bones is one possible way that a doctor may be able to correct this. The eardrum may have some scar tissue once it repairs itself, which will impact its ability to move. Surgery can fix that, also.
What Can You do to Avoid This Permanent Hearing Loss?
It’s important to consult a doctor when you think you might have an ear infection. The sooner you receive treatment, the better. Also, don’t ignore chronic ear infections. The more severe the infections you have, the more damage they will cause. Ear infections normally start with allergies, sinus infections, and colds so take steps to avoid them. If you are a smoker, now is the time to stop, too, because smoking increases your risk of having chronic respiratory troubles.
If you are still having trouble hearing after having an ear infection, see a doctor. It is possible you have some damage, but that is not the only thing that causes conductive hearing loss. If you find out that it’s permanent, hearing aids will help you hear again. To get more information about hearing aids, schedule an appointment with a hearing specialist.