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What Happens When Ear Infections Keep Coming Back?

Almost every kid gets an ear infection at some point. According to the National Institutes of Health, five out of six American children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday. Ear infections are the most common reason why parents bring their children to a doctor.

Ear infection pathway

Adults are less prone to ear infections, but anyone can get one. Generally, a virus or bacteria often spread via a respiratory tract infection – a cold, allergies or sinusitis for example – collects with fluid or mucus behind the eardrum. The area becomes inflamed, leading to painful swelling and redness in the ear canal. The result is ear pain, often fever, possibly hearing problems, sometimes discharge

The good news is usually ear infections clear on their own, with pain being managed by common relievers. The bad news is when they don’t go away, or keep happening again and again, they can cause real problems.

Chronic ear infection risks

“Chronic ear disease is one of the more common problems we see in our practice,” says Lehigh Valley Health Network otolaryngology specialist Kevin Kriesel, MD, of LVPG Ear, Nose and Throat–17th Street. “It can lead to infections spreading to the bones of the ear, or growths inside the middle ear. There can be a real potential for hearing loss.”

As a specialist, Kriesel sees patients who have exhausted medication options without any resolutions. When infections recur and have caused other problems around the middle ear, surgery is often the only solution. The procedure to reconstruct the ear drum, otherwise known as tympanoplasty, is one of the more common surgeries performed as a result of damage due to chronic ear infections. In addition, chronic ear infections can lead to involvement of the surrounding structures such as the mastoid bone. In that case, a procedure called a mastoidectomy may be required to eradicate the infection. This is a less common problem, and it usually is recommended after long-term medical therapies have failed to treat the problem.

Surgical and nonsurgical options for chronic ear infections

“We have several non-invasive surgical options dependent on the problem,” Kriesel says. “When someone comes to us who has been fighting these infections continuously, it’s always rewarding for us to be able to finally provide some relief for them. “

Think you may have a hearing loss? Get more information at LVHN.org/ENTguide.