Can ear infections cause hearing loss? The short answer is yes. But most of the time, when hearing loss is caused by an ear infection, it is temporary. For the most part, ear infections cause a type of hearing loss called conductive hearing loss.
Conductive Hearing Loss
Conductive hearing loss is caused by a “mechanical problem” somewhere along the hearing pathway. It happens when sound cannot properly travel to the inner ear and up to the brain where sound is processed.
There are different types of ear infections that affect different areas of the ear:
Outer ear infection
The outer ear is made up of the ear canal and eardrum. An infection in this part of the ear is called otitis externa. This is most often caused by a bacterial infection and can be caused from moisture becoming trapped in the ear canal (moisture is an excellent breeding ground for bacteria). An outer ear infection can also happen if your ear canal is scratched or irritated and becomes infected.
An outer ear infection may or may not cause hearing loss depending on how severe it is. If the infection has caused a build-up of discharge in the ear canal, it can prevent sound from coming in (similar to wearing an earplug) or affect how the eardrum moves. Your doctor may prescribe a topical antibiotic or recommend over-the-counter topical eardrops. Once the infection is treated, hearing almost always returns to normal.
Symptoms of an outer ear infection can include:
- Red or swollen ear canal
- Pain and/or itching
- Muffled hearing
Middle ear infection
Middle ear infections happen when the middle ear becomes infected. This type of infection is called otitis media and is mostly caused from bacteria. The middle ear is the part of the ear that is right behind your eardrum. This area can become inflamed and fluid-filled when infected. This type of ear infection often happens after a cold, flu, or sinus infection.
Middle ear infections often heal on their own but if they don’t, your doctor will likely prescribe oral antibiotics for treatment. It is important that an ear infection that does not resolve on its own be treated as soon as possible. While rare, an unresolved infection can spread and lead to serious complications. Just like with outer ear infections, if a middle ear infection causes hearing loss, hearing almost always returns to normal once the infection goes away.
Symptoms of a middle ear infection can include:
- Muffled hearing
- Feeling that ears are plugged
- Ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
Inner ear infection
Inner ear infections are mostly caused by a virus. An inner ear infection causes inflammation or irritation of the inner ear, which is responsible for hearing but also balance. Whether or not you experience hearing loss with an inner ear infection depends on what part of the inner ear is affected.
Treatment for an inner ear infection varies depending on the nature of the infection. Your doctor may prescribe an oral antibiotic, antiviral or steroid medication. Once the infection is gone, hearing should return to normal.
While ear infections most commonly cause conductive hearing loss, another type of hearing loss called sensorineural hearing loss can result as well. This is often the case with inner ear infections.
If you are experiencing hearing loss or think you have an ear infection, give us a call to schedule an appointment with us! As part of a routine hearing evaluation, your audiologist will look in your ears to see if there are any signs of infection and will perform the proper diagnostic testing which may or may not lead to a referral to your doctor.