A chronic ear infection (or Chronic Otitis Media) is fluid, swelling, or an infection behind the eardrum that does not go away or keeps coming back, and causes long-term or permanent damage to the ear.
What Can Cause a Chronic Ear Infection?
When the middle ear is acutely infected with bacteria (or occasionally, viruses) it is called acute otitis media. A chronic ear infection may be the result of an acute ear infection that does not clear completely, or the result of recurrent ear infections. The infection may spread into the mastoid bone behind the ear (mastoiditis), or pressure from fluid build-up may rupture the eardrum or damage the bones of the middle ear.
“Suppurative chronic otitis” is a phrase doctors use to describe an eardrum that keeps rupturing, draining, or swelling in the middle ear or mastoid area and does not go away.
How Do I Know If I Have a Chronic Ear Infection?
A chronic, long-term infection in the ear may have less severe symptoms than an acute infection. Unfortunately, it may go unnoticed and untreated for a long time.
Warning signs of chronic otitis media include:
- Persistent blockage of fullness of the ear
- Hearing loss
- Chronic ear drainage
- Development of balance problems
- Facial weakness
- Persistent deep ear pain or headache
- Drainage or swelling behind the ear
Chronic otitis media generally occurs gradually over many years in patients with longstanding or frequent ear trouble. However, it can occasionally develop over several months in a patient with no previous history of ear disease.
A chronic ear infection may cause permanent changes to the ear and nearby bones, including:
- Infection of the mastoid bone behind the ear (mastoiditis)
- Ongoing drainage from a hole in the eardrum that does not heal, or after the ear tubes are inserted
- Cyst in the middle ear (cholesteatoma)
- Hardening of the tissue in the middle ear (tympanosclerosis)
- Damage to the part of the ear that helps with balance
- Permanent hearing loss is rare, but the risk increases with the number and length of infections.