There are several types of hearing loss. Sometimes it’s temporary, caused by fluid in the ear or a blockage. Or it can be permanent, the result of ear damage from loud noises, aging, an infectious disease, or another cause. You may not be able to hear anything other than ringing in the ear, or you may still notice muffled sounds. People can be born with hearing loss, but it can happen at any time to one or both ears.
Ear infections, which are very common in children, can cause hearing loss, but it’s usually temporary.
Read on to learn more about hearing loss due to an ear infection and how to treat and prevent ear infections.
Hearing Loss and Ear Infections
Approximately 3 out of 4 children will have at least one ear infection before age 3. Ear infections also occur in adults but much less frequently.
Ear infections can cause muffled or impaired hearing. This is almost always temporary; normal hearing will return once the infection clears and swelling goes down. But if you or your child has hearing problems that last longer than a few days, call your healthcare provider for further treatment.
The most common type of ear infection is a middle ear infection, also known as otitis media. The middle ear (tympanic cavity) transforms sound waves into vibrations via the ossicles, which take sound from the outer ear to the inner ear. The middle ear contains:
- Ossicles: Three interconnected small bones that help sound waves get to the inner ear. These bones are the malleus, the incus, and the stapes.
- Eustachian tube: A canal that connects the middle ear with the back of the nose. It helps with the transfer of sound waves and equalizes the pressure in the middle ear.
An ear infection can lead to temporary swelling and/or fluid in the middle ear. This affects the way sound travels through the ear, leading to hearing problems.
Middle ear infections happen when the eustachian tube gets blocked by fluid or inflammation. This can be triggered by:
- Bacteria. The two most common are Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae.
- Viruses such as the ones that cause the common cold or flu.
- Allergies, if the area around the eustachian tube swells.
Who Do Ear Infections Affect?
Adults can get ear infections, but they’re much more common in children. About 75% of children will have one (or more) before their third birthday, while only 1-2% of adults over the age of 24 will get one. Children are more prone to ear infections because their eustachian tubes are narrower and don’t drain as well.
It’s helpful to know the signs of an ear infection in a child since they may not be able to tell you that something’s wrong. Look out for:
- Pulling at the ear
- Fussiness or crying
- Difficulty sleeping
- Leakage of fluid from the ear
- Clumsiness or balance problems
- Difficulty hearing
In adults, common symptoms can include:
- Pain in one or both ears
- Leakage of fluid from the ear
- Impaired or muffled hearing
- So throat
Since these can be symptoms of other conditions, it’s best to see your healthcare provider for an exam to get an accurate diagnosis.
The treatment for an ear infection depends on what type you have. For mild ear infections, especially ones caused by a virus, your healthcare provider might suggest watchful waiting while staying hydrated, resting, and taking pain relievers as needed. In many cases, your immune system will fight off the infection.
Other treatments can include:
Sometimes a provider will also suggest autoinsufflation. This can help balance the air pressure in your ear. You pinch your nose and then gently breathe out, which forces air through the eustachian tube.
You can’t prevent an ear infection, but you can reduce your chances of getting one. People who smoke or who are often around smokers are more likely to get ear infections.
If you’re having difficulty controlling your allergies or notice you get frequent colds, talk with your healthcare provider. And if you go swimming, dry your ears well afterward.
When to See a Healthcare Provider
Even if your ear ultimately clears up on its own, it’s a good idea to see a healthcare provider to confirm that’s what’s causing your symptoms. You should also see your healthcare provider if your ear infection causes hearing problems that last longer than a few days.
Ear infections can happen in both children and adults, although they are far more common in children. Sometimes an ear infection will cause temporary hearing problems, but your hearing should return to normal as the ear infection gets better. See your healthcare provider if you continue to notice hearing issues after a few days.
A Word From Verywell
Even if it’s only temporary, unexpected hearing loss can be frustrating and scary for both children and their caretakers. Keep in mind that ear infections are very common in children, and any hearing problems should only last for a few days. But don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider with any questions or concerns.
Frequently Asked Questions
How can you tell whether hearing loss is temporary or permanent?
Hearing loss due to an ear infection is usually temporary. Permanent hearing loss is almost always very gradual, and treatments are available to protect the hearing you still have. It’s always a good idea to contact your healthcare provider if you notice a change in your hearing.
How long do ear infections last?
Typically two to three days, although symptoms can linger for about a week. Call your healthcare provider if you or your child have significant symptoms that aren’t relieved by medication or if the infection seems to be persistent.
What does an ear infection feel like?
It might be painful or itchy. You might also have a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear and notice muffled hearing. Symptoms can vary depending on the severity of the infection.