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Can My Ear Infection Spread to My Brain?

Published: August 23, 2017
Dear TeenHealthFX,
I know this might sound crazy, but it was just a concern of mine. I know the ear and the brain are connected somehow. I have had repeated long-term ear infections. I was wondering if it was possible for the infection to spread to my brain? If so, what will happen?
Signed: Can My Ear Infection Spread to My Brain?

Dear Can My Ear Infection Spread to My Brain?,

According to the Mayo Clinic:

An ear infection (acute otitis media) is most often a bacterial or viral infection that affects the middle ear, the air-filled space behind the eardrum that contains the tiny vibrating bones of the ear. Children are more likely than adults to get ear infections.

Ear infections frequently are painful because of inflammation and buildup of fluids in the middle ear.

When to see a doctor:

  • Signs and symptoms of an ear infection can indicate a number of conditions. It's important to get an accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment. Call your child's doctor if:
  • Symptoms last for more than a day
  • Symptoms are present in a child less than 6 months of age
  • Ear pain is severe
  • Your infant or toddler is sleepless or irritable after a cold or other upper respiratory infection
  • You observe a discharge of fluid, pus or bloody discharge from the ear
  • An adult with ear pain or discharge should see a doctor as soon as possible.

 

As for potential complications, according to the Mayo Clinic:

Most ear infections don't cause long-term complications. Frequent or persistent infections and persistent fluid buildup can result in some serious complications:

Impaired hearing. Mild hearing loss that comes and goes is fairly common with an ear infection, but it usually returns to what it was before the infection after the infection clears. Persistent infection or persistent fluids in the middle ear may result in more significant hearing loss. If there is some permanent damage to the eardrum or other middle ear structures, permanent hearing loss may occur.

Speech or developmental delays. If hearing is temporarily or permanently impaired in infants and toddlers, they may experience delays in speech, social and developmental skills.

Spread of infection. Untreated infections or infections that don't respond well to treatment can spread to nearby tissues. Infection of the mastoid, the bony protrusion behind the ear, is called mastoiditis. This infection can result in damage to the bone and the formation of pus-filled cysts. Rarely, serious middle ear infections spread to other tissues in the skull, including the brain or the membranes surrounding the brain (meningitis).

Tearing of the eardrum. Most eardrum tears heal within 72 hours. In some cases, surgical repair is needed.

 

While it is possible for serious complications to occur in people who suffer from chronic ear infections, remember that most ear infections do NOT cause the long-term complications listed above. If you are prone to ear infections, the best thing to do is to stay on top of the ear infections with your doctor. If you notice pain, drainage or any other concerning symptoms, schedule an appointment with your primary care physician or adolescent medicine specialist right away. If you have ear infections that are not getting better with standard treatments, or you have chronic ear infections, check in with your doctor to see if it would be helpful for you to meet with an ENT (ear, nose, throat) specialist. Your doctor can monitor the infection and take steps to prevent the situation from getting worse, as well as answer any questions you may have.

If you don't have a doctor and live in northern New Jersey, you can call the Adolescent/Young Adult Center for Health at 973-971-5199 for an appointment with an adolescent medicine specialist or contact your local teen health center. You can also contact your insurance company for a list of in-network primary care physicians or ENT specialists.

Signed: TeenHealthFX

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