It's well-known that ear infections can cause hearing impairment, particularly in children. The good news is that this hearing loss is usually temporary. It will subside once the infection clears up.

The bad news is that in severe cases, an infection can lead to permanent damage. Understanding why and how this happens is the first step to preventing it. With that in mind, let's discuss the specifics of how an infection impacts the ears.

Why Do Ear Infections Impair Hearing?

There are several different types of ear infections, and each one has a different effect on hearing. 

Otitis Externa

An infection of the outer ear.

Hearing loss resulting from otitis externa is almost always the result of a blocked ear canal. This could be the result of a foreign agent, excessive earwax buildup, or even a fungal infection. If the infection is chronic, it may also trigger dermatitis, leading to the buildup of thick, scaly skin that causes a narrowing of the ear canal.

Otitis Media

An infection of the middle ear.

Inflammation of the eustachian tube can result in fluid buildup in the space behind the eardrum. This reduces the eardrum's capacity to transmit sound and, in extreme cases, impedes the motion of the ossicles. Children are typically more prone to this kind of infection due to both a less powerful immune response and a more horizontal eustachian tube.

In some cases, fluid or mucus may remain in the eustachian tube after the infection passes, a condition known as otitis media with effusion.

Otitis Interna

Inflammation of the inner ear. It's only the result of an infection roughly half the time. No one is certain of the cause in cases where a virus is not involved.

Otitis interna may also be known as labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis. Hearing loss from this condition is typically caused when inflammation impairs the function of a critical organ or nerve of the inner ear.

When Does An Ear Infection Cause Permanent Hearing Loss?

In most cases, a patient's hearing will recover as they fight off the infection. The scenarios in which an ear infection causes lasting damage to the ear are mercifully rare.

They include:

  • Recurrent infections.
  • Rupturing of the eardrum due to excessive fluid buildup.
  • Rupturing of the eardrum via the use of foreign objects such as q-tips.
  • Lack of treatment, which may cause the infection to spread to other organs.
  • Infection of the mastoid, known as acute mastoiditis.

Should I Go to the Doctor for an Ear Infection?

At the end of the day, your best bet is to make an appointment with an audiologist, a general practitioner, or an ear, nose, and throat specialist if you begin experiencing any symptoms of an infection—the faster you receive treatment, the better your overall prognosis.