Caused by bacteria or a virus that affects the middle ear, the air-filled space behind the eardrum that contains the tiny vibrating bones of the ear. Ear infections frequently are painful because of inflammation and buildup of fluids in the middle ear.

Long-term problems related to ear infections—persistent fluids in the middle ear, persistent infections or frequent infections—can cause hearing problems and other serious complications such as a tear or perforation of the eardrum, infection spreading to nearby tissues and bones.

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