Q: We just returned from a family vacation before everything was shut down due to COVID-19, and my son is complaining of plugged ears along with a cold. He tried unplugging his ears, but they only stay clear for a few seconds and then they plug up and his hearing is affected again. Do you think he has an infection, and what kind could it be?
A: It sure sounds like he has a middle ear infection. Otitis media is the most common cause of hearing loss and typically occurs during winter or spring. Otitis media is an inflammation of the middle ear and occurs in one or both ears. Most of the time it is not serious, but it is irritating and may affect the hearing, though it does not normally cause permanent hearing problems if medical intervention is obtained. Most often, otitis media clears pretty quickly if medication is taken at home. However, if you have recurrent episodes of otitis media and no medical treatment is obtained, it will then turn into a permanent hearing loss.
You may want to know what causes otitis media. It usually happens when fluid accumulation occurs behind the tympanic membrane (eardrum) due to bacteria from a cold, allergy, or respiratory infection. The fluid can cause pain, pressure, and redness, which affects how the eardrum vibrates in response to sound, resulting in a conductive hearing loss that is usually temporary.
Getting the fluid to dry up is essential because if the fluid remains in the middle ear cavity, it may become a more serious type called chronic serious otitis. This recurrent acute infection leads to greater hearing loss and may cause rupturing of the eardrum.
Symptoms to be on the lookout for in young children include holding their ear and crying, hearing difficulty, fever, or ear drainage. Remember if your child suffers from repeated otitis media, then it’s important to reach out to your doctor, who may suggest that you see an audiologist along with an otologist (ear doctor) to diagnose the infection and assess whether the hearing is being affected. Treatment options may be discussed and planned at that time.
For those adults who suffer from otitis media, the suggestions would be the same. Please consult your primary care physician.
Randa Mansour-Shousher, AuD, CCC-A, is a Doctor of Audiology with Northwest Ohio Hearing Clinic, located at 1125 Hospital Dr., Suite 50 in Toledo (419-383-4012) and 1601 Brigham Dr., Suite 160 in Perrysburg (419-873-4327).