Woman recovers her hearing after an ear infection and listens to her grandaughter whisper something in her ear.

Otitis media is the medical name for what you more than likely call an ear infection. Ear infections such as this are often seen in infants and young kids but they can also affect adults, as well, particularly during or after a cold or sinus infection. You can even get an ear infection from a bad tooth.

Hearing loss is one of the major signs and symptoms of an infection in the middle ear. But is it permanent? The answer to this question may be more challenging than you may think. There are many things going on with ear infections. To understand the potential risks, you should know more about the damage these infections can cause and how they affect hearing.

Otitis Media, What is it?

The simplest way to understand otitis media is that it’s an infection of the middle ear. It could possibly be any type of microorganism causing the infection however bacteria is the most common.

It’s what part of the ear that the infection happens in that defines it. 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. The term labyrinthitis describes an infection of the cochlea or inner ear.

The area behind the eardrum but in front of the cochlea is known as the middle ear. This area houses the three ossicles, or tiny bones, that vibrate the membranes of the inner ear. An infection in this part of the ear tends to be very painful because it puts a lot of pressure on the eardrum, usually until it breaks. Your failure to hear very well is also due to this pressure. The infectious material builds up and finally blocks the ear canal enough to hinder the movement of sound waves.

The signs or symptoms of a middle ear infection in an adult include:

  • Leakage from the ear
  • Pain in the ear
  • Reduced ability to hear

Usually, hearing will return eventually. The ear canal will open up and hearing will return. This will only happen when the infection gets better. There are some exceptions, however.

Repeated Ear Infections

Ear infections happen to most people at least once in their lifetime. Some people, however, will get ear infections again and again and they will become chronic. Chronic ear infections can result in problems that mean a more considerable and maybe even permanent loss of hearing, especially if the problem is left untreated.

Conductive Hearing Loss Caused by Ear Infections

Chronic ear infections can sometimes cause conductive hearing loss. When this occurs, the sound waves going to the inner ear are not strong enough. The ear has components along the canal which amplify the sound wave so by the time it gets to the tiny hair cells of the inner ear, it is strong enough to trigger a vibration. With a conductive hearing loss, something changes along that route and the sound isn’t amplified as much.

When you get an ear infection, bacteria are not just resting in your ear doing nothing. The components that amplify sound waves are decomposed and eaten by the bacteria. The damage is usually done to the tiny little bones and also the eardrum. The bones are very fragile and it doesn’t take much to break them up. These bones will never grow back once they are gone. That’s permanent damage and your hearing won’t return on its own. In certain cases, surgeons can put in prosthetic bones to fix hearing. The eardrum might have scar tissue once it repairs itself, which will affect its ability to vibrate. Surgery can correct that, as well.

This Permanent Damage Can be Prevented

If you believe that you may have an ear infection, call a doctor immediately. The sooner you receive treatment, the better. If you get chronic ear infections, don’t ignore them. The more severe the infections you have, the more damage they cause. Ear infections usually start with allergies, sinus infections, and colds so take steps to prevent them. If you smoke, now is the right time to quit, too, because smoking multiplies your risk of having chronic respiratory problems.

If you’ve had an ear infection and still are having difficulties hearing, call your doctor. Other things can cause conductive hearing loss, but you may have some damage. If it turns out it’s permanent, hearing aids will help you hear once again. You can schedule an appointment with a hearing specialist to get more information on hearing aids.

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