Can ear problems affect the brain?
The short answer would be yes. Ear problems such as an infection can affect the brain. This is typically so when a middle ear infection spreads across the mastoid process or the vestibulocochlear nerve, allowing it to diffuse even further across the entire neurological region of the body. Although nowadays it rarely happens due to early diagnosis and treatments such as antibiotics, complications such as brain abscess and meningitis are very serious, and can even lead to death. Let’s take a look at the complication of ear problems that can be associated with the brain and other neurologically related structures.
Brain abscess occurs when there is an accumulation of pus within the brain following an infection. As an example, the infection that spreads across the middle and inner ear would be able to travel across the mastoid (causing mastoiditis), nerve networks (causing vestibular neuritis) and finally the brain itself. Other than an ear infection, dental abscess, infection of the paranasal sinuses, mastoiditis and temporal bone infection can also cause brain abscess. Common symptoms associated with brain abscess would include headache, fever, nausea, vomiting, neurological deficits and altered consciousness. In severe cases brain abscess would result in death.
Meningitis is an inflammation of the meninges that can occur when the ear infection has spread across the protective layer of the brain and spinal cord. This would be possible similar to the way an ear infection would cause brain abscess – due to the anatomical structure of the ear and nervous system. Most commonly caused by a bacterial or viral infection, meningitis can also be triggered by drug allergies, fungal infection, chemical irritation and cancer. Symptoms that arise from meningitis would include, stiff neck, fever, vomiting, confusion, sensitivity to light, muscle and joint pain. In severe cases meningitis would also cause death.
Hearing loss can occur due the structural damage across the ear and also its nerve pathways that channels itself in between the ear and the brain. Ongoing ear infection that can trigger vestibular neuritis might end up causing significant hearing loss. As the name suggests, vestibular neuritis is an inflammation that affects two separate organs, namely the cochlea that accounts for our hearing prowess and also the vestibular apparatus that humans depend on to maintain their body balances. Other symptoms associated with vestibular neuritis would include sudden and severe vertigo, dizziness, balance difficulties, nausea, vomiting and concentration difficulties.
Facial paralysis is a condition whereby the nerve that innervates the muscles that contract and relax to make facial expressions are disrupted. This can occur when the our facial nerve is infected, irritated or inflamed due to an underlying ear infection, trauma, autoimmune disorder or the growth of a tumor. The facial nerve is located or channeled alongside the temporal bone allowing it to be easily exposed and influenced by ear-related problems. Facial nerve damage would commonly elicit symptoms such as facial muscle paralysis, facial muscle weakness, twitching of the face, dryness of the eye and mouth, excessive tearing and salivation.
As a conclusion, the public needs to realise that even a simple ear infection, if left untreated and becomes chronic, can lead to a number of serious complications. For your information, children are more likely to develop middle ear infection due to the anatomical structure of their ear, eustachian canal and other relatable components. Other groups that were prone to develop such an infection would include those that have a family history of concurrent ear infection and people that have seasonal allergies. Nevertheless, it is always advisable to go and get an appointment if you or your children happen to stumble across an ear infection in the near future.