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Can Ear Infections Cause Seizures?

Medically reviewed by Federica Polidoro, M.D.
Posted on March 20, 2024

For people with epilepsy, any illness — including ear infections — may raise the risk of seizure. Although the infection itself may not directly cause seizures, it may make certain types, such as febrile seizures, more likely to happen.

Read on to learn ways ear infections may indirectly lead to seizures and how to lower this risk if you or your child gets sick with an ear infection.

Ear Infections and Febrile Seizures

Febrile seizures are caused by fevers. It’s common to have a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) or higher along with a middle ear infection, medically known as otitis media. Generally, kids are more likely than adults to get ear infections. Young children (between ages 6 months and 5 years) are also more likely to have a febrile seizure.

There are two types of febrile seizures — simple (lasting no more than 15 minutes) and complex (longer than 15 minutes or recurring). Simple febrile seizures are more common and tend to involve the entire body. Complex febrile seizures start on one side of the body.

Causes and risk factors for febrile seizures include:

  • Infection (viral or bacterial)
  • Some childhood vaccinations
  • Family medical history of febrile seizures
  • Younger age

If your child has a febrile seizure, it’s a good idea to see a health care provider to rule out any complications.

Febrile Seizures Don’t Indicate Epilepsy

From 2 percent to 5 percent of children have at least one febrile seizure. Just because your child has a febrile seizure for the first time doesn’t mean that they have or will develop epilepsy.

Some research suggests that the risk of epilepsy may increase slightly for children who’ve had a complex febrile seizure. A 1976 study of about 1,700 children with neurological or developmental issues showed that having a complex febrile seizure led to an 18 times higher risk of epilepsy. However, in a later population-based study of more than 14,600 children, researchers found a much lower risk of epilepsy after febrile seizures than hospital studies reported.

If you’re concerned about your child’s neurological development, consider visiting a neurologist — a doctor who specializes in brain and nerve disorders.

Read more about the difference between epilepsy and seizures.

Brain Infections and Epilepsy

The factors most linked with the development of epilepsy are brain damage caused by head injury and infectious diseases of the central nervous system (CNS, or brain and spinal cord). Meningitis and encephalitis are two examples of CNS infections. These and other brain infections can also trigger status epilepticus, a prolonged seizure that is life-threatening. Status epilepticus is a medical emergency and requires first aid right away.

More research is needed to understand why infections may lead to the development of epilepsy.

Meningitis

Meningitis is an infection in the space surrounding the brain and spinal cord. Meningitis can cause febrile seizures and can be fatal without immediate medical attention. Some cases of meningitis develop from bacterial ear infections.

Seek medical care if you or your child experiences these symptoms that may indicate meningitis:

  • Stiff neck
  • Headache
  • Fever

Ear Infections in People With Epilepsy

If you or someone you love has epilepsy, you may wonder if an ear infection can be a seizure trigger. Members of MyEpilepsyTeam have shared their experience with this situation. One member wrote, “Every time my ears are infected or fluid is in them, I have a seizure.” Another shared, “I found I had a bad ear infection. That’s why my seizures were acting up.”

Many illnesses can trigger seizures, including head colds, sinus infections, and lung infections. The seizure trigger may not be the infection itself but, rather, the result of symptoms such as:

  • High fever
  • Vomiting, which may lead to dehydration or missing a dose of seizure medicine
  • Poor sleep

Over-the-Counter Medications and Risk of Seizures

People with epilepsy need to be careful when considering their treatment options for infections. Some over-the-counter (OTC) drugs that reduce the symptoms of ear infections and other illnesses may cause seizures or make them worse. It’s important to know that, for example:

  • Diphenhydramine, used for sleep and colds, can increase epileptic seizures.
  • Pseudoephedrine, used as a decongestant, can raise the risk of seizures.
  • Ibuprofen, a nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) to relieve pain, can trigger seizures as a rare side effect.

Be sure to talk with your health care provider about the benefits and risks of taking OTC medications.

Ways To Reduce Seizure Risk During Illness

You can take a few steps to reduce the risk of seizure when you or your child has an ear infection or other infection:

  • Drink lots of fluids to stay hydrated.
  • Get plenty of rest.
  • Finish the entire course of any prescribed antibiotics.
  • Get medical advice if symptoms include diarrhea or vomiting.
  • Go to an emergency room or call your doctor if a dose of antiepileptic drug is missed.
  • Keep seizure rescue medications on hand.

If you have questions or concerns about seizures and their association with ear infections or other illnesses, it’s important to talk with your doctor or your child’s doctor. And if you have a breakthrough seizure — a convulsion after a long seizure-free period — it might be worth considering whether an infection could be to blame.

“I couldn’t work out why I had three myoclonic seizures in the past two weeks,” one member of MyEpilepsyTeam said. “I hadn’t had a seizure in almost 10 months. I went to the doctor, and after a few checks, he discovered I had an inner ear infection. So we worked out the trigger.”

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyEpilepsyTeam is the social network for people with epilepsy and their loved ones. On MyEpilepsyTeam, more than 120,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with epilepsy.

Have you or your child experienced seizures while sick with an ear infection? Share your experience in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

    Posted on March 20, 2024
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    Federica Polidoro, M.D. a graduate of medical school and neurology residency in Italy, furthered her expertise through a research fellowship in multiple sclerosis at Imperial College London. Learn more about her here.
    Amanda Studnicki, Ph.D. earned her Bachelor of Science in biomedical engineering from the University of Delaware in 2014 and a doctorate of philosophy from the University of Florida in 2023. Learn more about her here.

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