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Can ear infections cause hearing loss?
There are a variety of factors and circumstances that contribute to hearing loss including environmental exposure to loud noise, heredity, aging, and medical conditions. Existing medical conditions such as hypertension, cardiovascular disease, and diabetes have been linked to hearing loss. Another kind of medical condition that can also contribute to the development of hearing loss is: ear infections.
How Hearing Works
To understand how ear infections impact hearing, it is important to know how hearing works. Hearing involves a complex process that involves all of the components that make up our ears:
- Outer Ear: consists of the most visible part of the ear and the ear canal (also known as the auditory canal).
- Middle Ear: the ear drum separates the outer from the middle ear which includes the ossicles, three tiny bones that are connected, and the Eustachian tube. This tube connects the middle ear to the throat and maintains the pressure within the middle ear so that fluid or air pressure does not accumulate.
- Inner Ear: includes the cochlea (filled with hair cells and fluid), canals responsible for balance, and the auditory nerve which sends information to the brain.
The outer ear absorbs sound from the environment which travels through the ear canal and strikes the eardrum. This causes the eardrum to vibrate and the soundwaves are amplified and sent further into the ear with the help of the ossicles. The cochlea is triggered and the movement of the hair cells (and fluid) helps translate the soundwaves into electrical signals that the auditory nerve carries to the brain. When any part of the ear is damaged, this process is disrupted, this is known as hearing loss.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Ear infections can cause conductive hearing loss which is one of three types (the other two are sensorineural and mixed hearing loss). Conductive hearing loss occurs when there is impact or damage to the outer or middle ear. This can be caused by several factors including: wax buildup, fluid, abnormal bone growths or tumors, and ear infections. These obstructions restrict or prevent soundwaves from traveling through the ear canal to the inner ear. This results in people struggling to hear distinct words and sentences because sounds are muffled and unclear. Conductive hearing loss is often temporary and curable!
Types of Ear Infection
There are different types of ear infections that can cause temporary hearing loss:
- Otitis Externa: is the infection of the ear canal which results in inflammation and swelling. This can be caused by foreign objects entering the ear, excess of wax and most commonly, swimmer’s ear. Swimmers ear occurs when there is too much water remaining in the ear.
- Otitis Media: is the infection of the middle ear resulting from the buildup of fluid behind the eardrum. This can be caused by colds, allergies, or upper respiratory infections. These conditions cause the back of the throat and the Eustachian tube to swell. The Eustachian tube connects the throat to the middle ear and is responsible for balancing the pressure in the middle ear. When inflamed, it is unable to do this and the accumulation of pressure creates a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum (as fluid is prevented from being drained as what normally occurs).
Though people of any age can experience ear infections, they are most common among children. This is because their immune system and Eustachian tube are not as developed as an adult’s.
There are specific symptoms that are commonly experienced as a result of middle-ear infections including:
- Pressure in the ears
- Dizziness and nausea
- Secretions from the ear (pus, fluid)
- Pulling or scratching ear
- Difficulty hearing
- Sounds and speech are muffled
This results in hearing loss, pain, and discomfort that should be evaluated and treated as soon as possible.
Fortunately, there are effective ways to treat and ultimately cure this type of hearing loss. Conductive hearing loss caused by ear infection is commonly treated through medical procedures, treatments, and medication. Ear infections can simply subside over a short time or can also be treated with antibiotics and eardrops. Chronic ear infections can be treated through a minor surgical procedure. This procedure involves opening the eardrum to remove excess fluid, making a small incision and placing a ventilation tube that prevents the buildup of fluid.