What Are the Dangers of Ear Infections?

Ear infections happen when fluid builds up inside the ear, giving bacteria or viruses a place to grow. Ear pain and fever can result. Although the National Institutes of Health says most ear infections resolve without causing additional problems, sometimes ear infections cause dangers beyond their immediate symptoms 2. Dangerous complications can occur if ear infections don’t clear up quickly, or if they repeatedly recur.

Hearing Loss

People who experience prolonged or repeated ear infections can suffer hearing loss, says CNN.com--which is particularly a problem for young children who need to hear properly to be able to learn language and fully develop their speech skills. The Mayo Clinic says ear infections may cause either short-term hearing loss for a few weeks before fluid drains out of the ear, or long-term hearing loss if fluid remains trapped inside the ear for several months and permanently damages the eardrum and nearby bones that must work properly to sense sound vibrations. Children who have suffered long-term hearing loss from ear infections are at risk of speech and language development delays, according to the National Institutes of Health 2.

More Infections

If ear infections remain untreated, they can spread to other parts of the body, according to the National Institutes of Health 2. One of the most common of those additional infections is mastoiditis, a type of sinus infection that affects the portion of the skull bone located behind people’s ears, the Mayo Clinic says 3. Although it’s rare, adds the Mayo Clinic, ear infections can move to other parts of the head. The National Institutes of Health cautions that untreated ear infections may cause meningitis, a life-threatening infection that causes the membranes that cover the brain and spinal cord to swell and become inflamed 2.

Ruptured Eardrum

When fluid from an ear infection builds up behind the eardrum, the pressure can cause the eardrum to break open, says the National Institutes of Health 2. Pus and blood flowing out of the ear are signs of a ruptured eardrum, the Mayo Clinic reports. However, the situation is usually temporary; the eardrum often heals on its own, without surgery, after the pressure from clogged fluid is released.

Enlarged Adenoids or Tonsils

Sometimes ear infections cause inflammation that makes people’s adenoids or tonsils swell, according to the National Institutes of Health 2. Adenoids and tonsils are both tissues that are part of the body’s lymphatic system, designed to help protect the body from germs coming in through the mouth and nose. The adenoids are located in the upper throat behind the nose; the tonsils are located in the back of the throat. If they become enlarged, breathing and hearing problems may result, the National Institutes of Health reports 2.