Importance of Treatment
The only way your physician can know if an infection is caused by a virus, bacteria, or both is to remove some of the fluid from the middle ear with a small needle. However, it takes 48 hours to get lab results back, and parents usually want a quicker response. Some pediatricians will assume it is a bacterial infection and treat it with antibiotics immediately. In children younger than 2, immediate action is critical.
Untreated ear infections can spread and cause serious -- even life-threatening -- problems, such as a brain abscess or meningitis. Another rare but serious complication in young children is facial paralysis if the infection spreads to the facial nerve.
A less dangerous and more common consequence of untreated ear infections is a perforated eardrum. The fluid in the middle ear builds up until the pressure causes the eardrum to burst. Although this is frightening to parents, it results in immediate relief from the pain the child was experiencing and lets the fluid drain from the middle ear. Most of these perforations heal on their own, but some do require surgical repair.