A chronic ear infection is any ear infection that does not heal or that keeps reoccurring. These infections, also referred to as reoccurring acute otitis media, can affect anyone—but are most common among children. Ear infections are not only painful, but can also lead to a buildup of fluid in the ear that can cause the eardrum to rupture.
An infection can develop when the Eustachian tube that drains fluid from the middle ear becomes clogged. This causes fluid to build up behind the eardrum, causing pain. Children are more prone to these infections because their Eustachian tubes are smaller and more horizontal.
The symptoms of a chronic ear infection are often milder than an acute infection. The symptoms may be constant or intermittent, and may affect one or both ears. Typical signs of a chronic ear infection include:
It is often difficult to identify symptoms of an ear infection in very young children. Infants may become more irritable, especially when lying down, or pull on their ear. Babies may also exhibit a change in sleeping and eating patterns.
Home remedies, such as over-the-counter pain relievers, numbing ear drops, or warm compresses, can ease the discomfort of an ear infection until you can see your doctor. The first line of treatment for most ear infections are antibiotics by mouth or ear drops.
In severe cases, surgery may be necessary. During the procedure, called a myringotomy, the doctor inserts a small tube into the eardrum. This tube allows the fluid to drain from the inner ear. Most patients experience a dramatic decrease in the number of infections and the severity of their symptoms after getting tubes.
If left untreated, ear infections can lead to permanent hearing loss, balance problems, and even speech delays in young children. You should consult a doctor as soon as possible if you or your child has any of the following:
It is important to treat acute ear infections promptly to prevent them from developing into chronic infections.