The Eustachian tube runs from the middle of each ear to the back of the throat. This tube drains fluid normally made in the middle ear. If the Eustachian tube becomes blocked, fluid can build up. When this happens, infection can occur. See: Acute ear infection
A chronic ear infection occurs when fluid or an infection behind the eardrum does not go away. A chronic ear infection may be caused by:
An acute ear infection that does not clear completely
Repeated ear infections
"Suppurative chronic otitis" is a phrase doctors use to describe an eardrum that keeps rupturing, draining, or swelling in the middle ear or mastoid area and does not go away.
Ear infections are more common in children because their Eustachian tubes are shorter, narrower, and more horizontal than in adults. Chronic ear infections are much less common than acute ear infections.
A chronic, long-term infection in the ear may have less severe symptoms than an acute infection. It may go unnoticed and untreated for a long time.
Symptoms may include:
Ear pain or discomfort that is usually mild and feels like pressure in the ear
Note: Symptoms may persists or come and go, and may occur in one or both ears.
Signs and tests
The health care provider will examine the ears. This may reveal:
Dullness, redness in the middle ear
Air bubbles in the middle ear
Thick fluid in the middle ear
Eardrum may stick to the bones in the middle ear
Draining fluid 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, and these bacteria may be resistant or 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 may be due to bacteria. You may need to take antibiotics for a long time, either by mouth or into a vein (intravenously).
If there is a hole in the eardrum, antibiotic ear drops are used. For a difficult-to-treat infected ear that has a hole (perforation), a dilute acidic solution (such as distilled vinegar and water) may be recommended by your health care provider.
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
Repair of the eardrum
Ear tube surgery
Chronic ear infections usually respond to treatment. However, your child may need to keep taking medicines for several months.
Chronic ear infections are not life threatening, but they can be uncomfortable and may result in hearing loss and other serious complications.
A chronic ear infection may cause permanent changes to the ear and nearby bones, including:
Infection of the mastoid bone behind the ear (mastoiditis)
Ongoing drainage from a hole in the eardrum that does not heal, or after the ear tubes are inserted
Damage to the part of the ear that helps with balance
Partial or complete hearing loss due to damage of the middle ear may lead to:
Slow development of language or speech (more common if both ears are affected)
Permanent hearing loss is rare, but the risk increases with the number and length of infections.
Calling your health care provider
Call for an appointment with 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 examination with the health care provider after an ear infection has been treated to make sure that it is completely 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, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.