Many things can cause hearing loss, including ear infections. A Mediclinic audiologist explains the factors that can help identify what’s affecting your hearing.

Various types of ear infections affect different parts of the ear. The most common types are middle-ear infections (otitis media), which occur in the space behind the eardrum known as the middle ear, and outer-ear infections (otitis externa) that affect the outer ear, or the ear canal, explains Shamima Seedat, an audiologist and speech therapist at Mediclinic Newcastle.

“The main differences between middle-ear and outer-ear infections lie in the location of the infection within the ear anatomy, as well as the associated symptoms,” she adds.

Symptoms of ear infections

Seedat explains that the types of symptoms you may experience depend on the type of ear infection you have:

Otitis media (middle-ear infections)

Acute otitis media: A common infection that often occurs after a cold or respiratory infection. Symptoms will come on quickly and may include:

  • Earache
  • Fluid draining out of your ear
  • Hearing loss

Chronic otitis media with effusion: Persistent fluid accumulates in your middle ear without signs of acute infection. It may initially go unnoticed but can potentially lead to hearing loss over time.

Otitis externa (outer-ear infections)

Acute otitis externa ("swimmer’s ear”): An infection that occurs in the ear canal and is often associated with water exposure.

Chronic otitis externa: May be caused by factors such as persistent moisture in the ear, injury to the ear canal, or skin conditions such as eczema, allergies, and bacterial or fungal infections. Symptoms such as pain, redness, swelling, and hearing problems may occur.

Diagnosis of ear infections

If hearing loss is the symptom you first notice, an audiologist can help identify what’s affecting your hearing. Expect the audiologist to ask questions, do a physical examination of your ears, and perform tests to check your hearing. Depending on what they pick up, they might refer you to a doctor.

“Audiologists work in conjunction with other healthcare professionals, and while they primarily focus on assessing hearing function, they may contribute to identifying signs of ear infections,” says Seedat. “If there are suspected infections, a medical professional such as an ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) or GP would usually handle further examination and treatment.”

Treatment for ear infections

“The treatment for middle- and outer-ear infections usually involves a combination of medical interventions to alleviate symptoms, clear infections, and prevent complications such as permanent hearing loss,” says Seedat:

Antibiotics if a middle ear infection is bacterial.

Prescription ear drops may address inflammation and fluid build-up when treating middle-ear infections. Antibiotic or antifungal drops may be used for outer-ear infections, depending on the cause of the infection. In some cases, corticosteroid ear drops may be recommended to reduce inflammation in outer ear infections.

Painkillers can help manage earache.

Decongestants or antihistamines may be recommended to relieve congestion and address underlying factors contributing to a middle-ear infection.

Myringotomy (ear tube surgery) may be recommended to facilitate drainage and prevent fluid build-up in cases of recurrent or chronic middle-ear infections, especially in children.

Avoiding moisture by staying away from water-based activities like swimming is crucial during the treatment of outer-ear infections.

Who should have a hearing screening?

Babies and children usually have their hearing tested as part of routine health checks. For adults, Seedat recommends a baseline test in your 20s or 30s, followed by routine screenings every three to five years (more frequently for high-risk individuals), and annually after age 50.

Find your nearest Mediclinic audiologist here