Chronic ear infection is fluid, swelling, or an infection behind the eardrum. The condition does not go away or keeps coming back, and causes lasting damage to the ear. An ear infection that is short and painful but clears up is called an acute ear infection.
The eustachian tube runs from the middle of each ear to the back of the throat. This tube drains fluid that is made in the middle ear. If the eustachian tube becomes blocked, fluid can build up. When this happens, infection can occur.
A chronic ear infection occurs when fluid or an infection behind the eardrum does not go away. This may be caused by:
An short-term ear infection that does not clear completely
Repeated ear infections
Ear infections are more common in children because their eustachian tubes are shorter and narrower than in adults. The tubes in children are also more horizontal, so fluid does not drain as well. Chronic ear infections are much less common than acute ear infections.
Symptoms from a chronic, long-term infection in the ear may be less severe than a short-term infection. It may go unnoticed and untreated for a long time.
Symptoms may include:
Mild ear pain or discomfort that feels like pressure in the ear
Symptoms may be constant or come and go. Symptoms may also occur in one or both ears.
Exams and Tests
The health care provider will look in the ears. The exam may show:
Parts of the middle ear that look dull or red
Air bubbles in the middle ear
Thick fluid in the middle ear
Eardrum may be sticking to the bones in the middle ear
Fluid draining from the eardrum
A hole (perforation) in the eardrum
The eardrum bulges out or pulls back inward (collapses)
Tests may include:
Cultures of the fluid may show bacteria. These bacteria may be harder to treat than the bacteria commonly involved in an acute ear infection.
A CT scan of the head or mastoids may show that the infection has spread beyond the middle ear.
Hearing tests may be needed.
The health care provider may prescribe antibiotics if the infection might be due to bacteria. Long-term antibiotics may be needed. These can either be taken by mouth or given through a vein (intravenously).
Antibiotic ear drops are used if there is a hole in the eardrum. The health care provider may tell you to use a solution of vinegar and water for a hard-to-treat infected ear that has a hole in the eardrum. A surgeon may need to clean out (debride) tissue that has gathered inside the ear.
Other surgeries that may be needed include:
Surgery to clean the infection out of the mastoid bone (mastoidectomy)
Surgery to repair or replace the small bones in the middle ear
Damage to the part of the ear that helps with balance
Hearing loss due to damage of the middle ear may lead to slow development of language or speech. This is more common when both ears are affected.
Permanent hearing loss is rare. The risk increases with the number and length of infections.
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your health care provider if:
You or your child has signs of a chronic ear infection
An ear infection does not respond to treatment
New symptoms develop during or after treatment
Getting prompt treatment for an acute ear infection may reduce the risk of developing a chronic ear infection. Have a follow-up exam with the health care provider after an ear infection has been treated to make sure that it is cured.
Morris PS, Leach AJ. Acute and chronic otitis media. Pediatr Clin North Am. 2009 Dec;56(6):1383-99.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.