What Is Chronic Ear Infection?
Chronic ear infection refers to both an ear
infection that does not heal and a recurring ear infection. This may also be
known as recurring acute otitis
media. The middle ear, the space behind the eardrum, is affected by this
The Eustachian tube, a tube that normally
drains fluid from the middle ear, can become plugged and infected. This buildup
of fluid in the middle ear presses on the eardrum, causing pain. If left
untreated, an infection can cause the eardrum to rupture. Eustachian tubes in
children are smaller and more horizontal, so they can become plugged more
easily. This is why ear infections occur more commonly in children.
What Are the Signs of Chronic Ear Infection?
A chronic ear infection can cause milder
symptoms than an acute ear infection. Symptoms may affect one or both ears and
may be constant or come and go. Signs that you may have a chronic ear infection
- a feeling of pressure in the ear
- mild ear pain
- fluid draining from ears
- low fever
- hearing loss
- trouble sleeping
An infant may seem fussier than usual,
especially when lying down, as this puts pressure on the ear. Your baby’s
eating and sleeping habits may also change. Pulling and tugging on the ear can
also be a sign of a chronic ear infection in infants. However, this can also be
caused by teething or exploration of the body.
When to See Your Doctor
If you or your child is having symptoms of an
acute ear infection, which includes ear pain, fever, and trouble hearing, you
should see your doctor. Getting an acute ear infection treated promptly can
help prevent a chronic ear infection. You should also see your doctor if:
- you have been diagnosed with an
acute ear infection but it’s not responding to treatment (antibiotics)
- you have been diagnosed with an
acute ear infection and experience new symptoms, or if the symptoms get worse
- if your child shows symptoms of a
recurring ear infection
Chronic ear infections require medical
treatment. However, home treatment can help relieve your symptoms. Home
- holding a warm or cool washcloth
to the painful area
- using numbing ear drops
- taking an over-the-counter pain
reliever, such as acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs
(NSAIDs) like ibuprofen
If you have a chronic ear infection, your
doctor will prescribe antibiotics. These may be taken orally or given
intravenously (in a vein) if the infection is severe. Your doctor may suggest
ear drops if you have a hole (perforation) in the eardrum. Antibiotic ear drops
can also be used, or your doctor may suggest using a diluted vinegar solution.
Surgery may be needed for chronic ear
infections that aren’t responding to treatment or are causing hearing problems.
Hearing problems can be especially problematic in children because they can
cause speech and language problems at an important time in development.
Your doctor may wish to go in surgically and
insert a small tube through the eardrum, connecting the middle ear and the
outer ear. Inserting ear tubes helps the fluid in the inner ear drain, which
can reduce the number of infections and the severity of symptoms. Ear tubes are
usually placed in both ears. This procedure is called a bilateral myringotomy.
To do this procedure, a surgeon will make a
tiny hole in the eardrum. The fluid will be suctioned out of the ear, and a
small tube will be inserted through the hole. Tubes usually fall out on their
own, about six to 18 months after they are inserted. If the tubes don’t fall
out, you may need to have them surgically removed.
Other types of surgery may be required if the
infection has spread. There are a number of small bones in the middle ear. If
these bones become infected, surgery may be required to repair or replace them.
The eardrum can also be damaged by a chronic ear infection. If the eardrum isn’t
healing properly, you may need surgery to repair damage.
Rarely, the infection can spread to the mastoid
bone, a bone located behind the ear. If the infection spreads to the mastoid
bone, surgery is required to clean out the infection. This is known as a mastoidectomy.
What Are the Consequences of Untreated Symptoms?
If left untreated, a chronic ear infection
can cause a number of problems. These possible complications include:
- hearing loss
- damage to the bones in the middle
- infection of the mastoid bone
- damage to the balance function in
- drainage from hole in eardrum
- tympanosclerosis, a hardening of
tissue in the ear
- cholesteatoma, a cyst in the
- facial paralysis
- inflammation around or in the
There are a number of things you can do to help
reduce you and your child’s risk of developing a chronic ear infection. Make
sure to talk to your doctor if you have an acute ear infection so it can be
treated and doesn’t become chronic.
It’s also important to stay up-to-date with
vaccinations for influenza, pneumonia, and meningitis — the viruses and
bacteria these vaccines protect you from can also cause ear infections. In
fact, pneumococcal bacteria, which can cause both pneumonia and pneumococcal
meningitis, also causes about half of middle ear infections, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Other tips for preventing ear infections
- stopping smoking and avoiding
- breast-feeding infants for the
first year of life
- practicing good hygiene,
including washing hands regularly