Can Ear Infections Lead to Permanent Hearing Loss?

The answer may surprise you.

Auditory cortex of the brain. BSIP/UIG/Getty Images

Otitis media, also known as an “ear infection”, is the most common reason children are taken to the doctor and are treated with antibiotics. 80% of children will have an episode of otitis media before they are three years old, and each episode can cause the sound to be muffled. This decrease in hearing can last for months while the body slowly absorbs the fluid in the middle ear space. Previous studies have shown that this conductive hearing loss impacts speech and language development, the ability to hear the location sounds come from, and may contribute to auditory processing disorders.

Conductive hearing loss occurs when there is a physical interference in the transmission of sound from the outer ear to the inner ear. Conductive hearing loss can occur due to anything from the absence of an ear or ear canal to cerumen (ear wax) impaction, ear infections, or problems with the bones in the middle ear.

In a new study published by Massachusetts Eye and Ear researchers, findings strongly suggest that chronic conductive hearing loss (such as from ear infections) leads to permanent hearing loss if untreated.

The researchers looked at mice with conductive hearing loss in one ear. The surgically produced conductive hearing loss created 25dB of attenuation of sound. This is a conservative approximation of the amount of hearing loss caused by an ear infection.

They found over the course of a year this hearing loss caused auditory deprivation. Auditory deprivation occurs when the brain is deprived of sound (in this case, due to the conductive hearing loss) and loses the ability to interpret sounds properly.

Much like muscles that are not used, the auditory pathways can atrophy when not receiving clear sounds. This study’s data indicates chronic conductive hearing loss damages the inner ear, in the same way, age or noise exposure will damage the ear.

What does this mean?

It means that we need to be aware of conductive hearing loss and monitor ear infections more closely.

It is not enough to simply treat an ear infection with an antibiotic and not monitor the hearing loss the presence of fluid in the middle ear creates. This means that physicians should work with an audiologist to measure hearing loss associated with ear infections to be sure that treatment resolves the hearing loss completely.  

It also means we need to consider the effect of unilateral conductive hearing loss (hearing loss in one ear). It is not enough to have “one good ear”. All unilateral hearing loss should be treated to preserve how the brain processes sound. There are many options for treating all types of hearing loss; an audiologist can provide professional guidance on the best way to keep your hearing brain healthy.


Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary. (2015, November 18). Sound deprivation leads to irreversible hearing loss: Researchers show that chronic conductive hearing loss leads to cochlear degeneration. ScienceDaily. Retrieved December 1, 2015, from

Liberman MC, Liberman LD, Maison SF (2015) Chronic Conductive Hearing Loss Leads to Cochlear Degeneration. PLoS ONE 10(11): e0142341. Doi:10. 1371/journal.pone.0142341

Pennie RA. Prospective study of antibiotic prescribing for children. Can Fam Physician. 1988; 44:1850-56. 

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