Are there any major risks from ear infections?
The vast majority of ear infections are not serious and clear on their own within two to three days. Although severe cases that go untreated can cause your child's eardrum to rupture, this sounds more serious than it is. (A ruptured eardrum typically heals on its own within a few days or weeks, says Dr. Drake; your child may have some short-term trouble hearing until the eardrum heals completely.)
Ongoing ear infections may also cause some temporary hearing loss, but there are mixed opinions about whether this would have any long-term impact on language development. "Theoretically, if a child spends a good portion of his critical language development years with poor hearing due to recurrent ear infections, it stands to reason that his vocabulary and verbal skills could be impacted," says Dr. Mansour. "However, it's likely that many children would not have any significant delays as they develop and have continued exposure to language."
In very, very rare cases, an untreated ear infection could lead to meningitis, dangerous inflammation of the membranes around the brain and spinal cord.
Sources: Amelia Drake, MD, professor of pediatric otolaryngology at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, School of Medicine. Mona Mansour, MD, director of the Primary Care Division of General and Community Health at Cincinnati Children's Hospital Medical Center in Ohio. John McClay, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Children's Medical Center Dallas in Texas. AAP sections on Ear Infections, Diagnosis, and Management of Acute Otitis Media, Recommended Immunization Schedules and Management of Otitis Media and Functional Outcomes Related to Language, Behavior and Attention. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders section on Otitis Media. CDC section on Pneumococcal Disease in Children. AFP section on Otitis Media with Effusion. Mayo Clinic Sections on Ear Infections and Vaccines Schedules for Children.
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