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How many are too many? Chronic ear infection signs, treatment and prevention

Earaches and ear infections are practically a rite of passage for infants and toddlers and the top reason little ones visit Indigo Health. (We see you, sleep-deprived parent warrior.) And they’re not just for kids. About 20 percent of ear infections happen in adults.

While painful and annoying, ear infections typically clear up within a few days. But when you or your little one has three or more ear infections in six months, or four or more in a year, the condition could be chronic.


What causes recurring ear infections?

The most common type of ear infection happens in the middle ear, the space just behind the eardrum. When bacteria or a virus gets into the middle ear through the eustachian tube, it can cause the tube to swell. Fluids that normally drain away can become blocked, creating perfect breeding conditions for germs.

Some common causes of ear infections can include:

When a single, isolated infection happens, it’s called an acute ear infection (or acute otitis media). But when fluid, swelling, or an infection behind the eardrum doesn’t go away or comes back, it’s likely your ear infection is chronic.


What are the signs and symptoms of chronic ear infections?

Symptoms of a persistent ear infection are typically milder than acute ear infections. Symptoms may be constant or come and go and may affect one or both ears.

Typical signs of chronic ear infection include:

  • The sensation of pressure in the ear.
  • Mild to moderate ear pain.
  • Fever from 100 to 104 degrees.
  • Yellow, brown or white fluid draining from the affected ear, could indicate a ruptured eardrum.
  • Hearing loss.
  • Difficulty sleeping.

For infants and young children, the symptoms may not be so obvious. Difficulty sleeping and eating, unusual fussiness, or ear pulling or tugging are sometimes the only indicators of an ear infection.


What happens if you don’t treat a chronic ear infection?

If left untreated, chronic ear infections can cause serious complications, including:

  • Hearing loss.
  • Ruptures or tears in the ear drum.
  • Damage to bones in the middle ear.
  • Infection that spreads to other tissue in and around the ear.
  • Cyst in the middle ear
  • Damage to the part of the ear that helps with balance.

In rare cases, an untreated ear infection can cause facial paralysis and inflammation around or in the brain.


How can I prevent chronic ear infections?

Some simple prevention methods can help keep ear infections at bay.

  • Wash your hands frequently to reduce the spread of viruses and bacteria.
  • Stop smoking and eliminate exposure to second-hand smoke
  • Keep up to date on vaccinations. Viruses like the flu and COVID-19 can make you more susceptible to recurring ear infections.
  • Follow your clinician's recommendations to ensure your infection is properly treated.


Indigo Urgent Care can help put an end to persistent ear infections

Just like other chronic conditions, recurring ear infections require medical attention and regular follow-up treatment. 

Indigo Urgent Care is available in person or online. Best of all, you don’t need to wait. Open appointments are available the same day or the next day with our easy online booking and registration.

Your Indigo provider will evaluate your symptoms and medical history and use an instrument called an otoscope to check inside the ear to help make a diagnosis. If you have a chronic ear infection, your provider may recommend:

  • At-home treatment, including over-the-counter remedies to reduce fever and pain.
  • Antibiotics if the infection is caused by bacteria.
  • Prescription ear drops to treat a hole or tear in the eardrum.
  • A hearing test, especially if you have a history of ear infections.
  • Surgical placement of ear tubes to drain fluid from the middle ear and reduce the number of new infections. Ear tubes are often recommended for children who have persistent ear infections.
  • Specialist care if you have symptoms that require a higher level of care.

If you need care for an ear infection after-hours or on weekends, visit one of our convenient Indigo Urgent Care locations. We’re open from 8 am to 8 pm every day to treat most minor illnesses and injuries. Learn more about what we treat.

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