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Complications from ear infection: What Are the Possible Complications of Ear Infections?

What Are the Possible Complications of Ear Infections?

Ear infections aren’t usually a huge cause for concern. They’re not contagious, and in most cases they clear up on their own or with over-the-counter pain medicine, such as ibuprofen (Advil), and a round of antibiotics. (1)

They’re also very common, especially among children. In fact, at least 8 in 10 children will have one or more ear infections by their third birthday. (1)

Complications, though rare, do occur. When they do, they can be serious. (2)

“Complications can happen at any age, but they’re much more common in children under the age of 1,” says Sujana S. Chandrasekhar, MD, with ENT and Allergy Associates in New York City.

“We’re really aggressive when a small baby comes in with an ear infection because their preformed pathways between the brain and the ear — there are a couple that are open,” which makes small children more prone to complications, Dr. Chandrasekhar says. “Young children we treat early and aggressively to prevent complications.

The following are some complications associated with ear infections:

  • Hearing Loss This could result if infections occur frequently or never fully heal. Most of the time, hearing loss is only temporary, and the risk of permanent hearing loss due to ear infections is low, affecting about 2 out of every 10,000 children who suffer from a middle ear infection. (3,4) If hearing loss does occur, however, it can be troublesome, especially for young children who are just learning to speak. “The way they learn, speech and language education is by hearing and overhearing,” Chandrasekhar says. It becomes an even more serious concern if the infection affects both ears instead of just one. (5) Prolonged hearing loss among young children could lead to delays in a child learning to talk and understand adults. (6)
  • Mastoiditis An infection of the bones behind the ear, mastoiditis can begin as a mild infection with the potential to turn into something serious. In most cases, a child is at risk of developing mastoiditis if he or she has repeat ear infections. Symptoms include redness or swelling on the bone behind the ear, swollen ear lobes, and headaches. If treatment options don’t work and the infection continues to spread, other serious complications can occur, including hearing loss, meningitis, and brain abscess. (7)
  • Meningitis This is an infection in the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord. (8) Adults and children over age 2 may exhibit flu-like symptoms, including headaches, fever, and nausea, while infants may cry constantly, seem extremely tired, or experience stiffness in their body and neck. Chandrasekhar says if bending your neck forward to touch your chin to your chest really hurts, it could be a sign of meningitis. Meningitis can be life-threatening or can lead to permanent brain damage, so it’s important to see a doctor as soon as you have these signs and symptoms. (9) The usual treatment is hospitalization and antibiotics through an IV for up to 21 days. (4)
  • Brain Abscess A brain abscess can occur when pus gathers in the brain as a result of infection. “We see it more often in countries where access to healthcare is not great. But we actually see it sometimes in the United States, and that’s something that needs to be recognized and treated quickly,” Chandrasekhar says. Symptoms of brain abscess include fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, and variations with consciousness. In order to diagnose, a doctor will likely examine the brain and nervous system, specifically looking for any fluid collection in the brain. Brain abscesses are often treated with surgery and antibiotics in combination. (10) It’s definitely considered an emergency, but chances of survival have been improving over the last half century. The recovery rate has improved from 33 percent to 70 percent. (4)
  • Ruptured Eardrum If the eardrum ruptures (bursts), which can happen as a result of fluid building up pressure in the middle ear, a small hole results. It usually heals within a couple of weeks. (3) Interestingly, “once the eardrum ruptures, there’s no more pain because there’s no more pressure,” Chandrasekhar says, adding that more than 90 percent of ruptured eardrums heal on their own.
  • Facial Paralysis “The facial nerve, which is the nerve that animates your face, runs right through the ear, and you can develop a facial paralysis where one side of your face doesn’t move [as a result of infection],” Chandrasekhar says. This has become less common thanks to antibiotic treatments. It used to occur in 1 in 50 cases of middle ear infections but now only occurs in about 1 in every 2,000 cases. Almost everyone who experiences this complication will make a full recovery, though it’s still considered an emergency and patients should see a doctor right away, Chandrasekhar says. (4)

There’s also a risk that repeat ear infections, which occur in about 25 percent of children, may end up damaging the small bones in the middle ear. This can damage hearing, or it may lead to a condition called cholesteatoma, which occurs when tissue grows and blocks the eardrum. Surgery is usually needed to treat this condition. (3,5,11)

Warning Signs to Watch Out For

“The risk of having any of these complications is extremely low,” Chandrasekhar says. And thanks to advances in treatments, complications have become even more rare. (3)

But there are a few signs to be on the lookout for. Pain that continues to get worse, changes in your mental state, or a very high spiking fever (for instance, jumping from 102 back to 98 to 104 to 99) are all indications there’s potentially something serious going on, Chandrasekhar says.

To better your chances of recovery, visit your doctor as soon as you notice any of these symptoms.

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