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Causes of Ear Infections

An ear infection occurs when fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear following a viral or bacterial infection. This painful affliction is most common in children, but can affect people of all ages. Ear infections can be either acute (of short duration) or chronic (persisting or reoccurring frequently). If you do suffer from chronic ear infections then it could be time to visit an ears, nose, and throat doctor near you who specializes in ear infections.

The majority of ear infections are viral or bacterial in nature, usually occurring after a cold or upper respiratory infection. These conditions cause swelling of the Eustachian tube, a small canal that connects the middle ear to the nostrils and provides an outlet for fluid drainage, trapping germs and fluid in the middle ear and leading to infection.

Because children are still growing physically, some of their internal organs may also be temporarily underdeveloped. This is true of the Eustachian tube, the canal that connects the middle ear to the nostrils, providing an outlet for fluid drainage. Because the Eustachian tube is smaller in children, it is more prone to swelling; when this occurs, fluid is trapped in the middle ear.

This fluid presses against the eardrum, causing pain, and can harbor germs that lead to infection. The result is an earache and, in some cases, loss of hearing. When the infection does not completely go away or returns often, it is referred to as chronic.

What Are the Symptoms of Ear Infections?

The hallmark signs of ear infection are pain and pressure in the ear and fluid drainage. Additional symptoms include:

  • Low-grade fever
  • Hearing loss

Infants are often fussier than usual, and may cry inconsolably, refuse to eat and have trouble sleeping. They may also pull or tug on the ear. Symptoms may be milder in chronic ear infections.

Should your child display any of these symptoms, bring them to the doctor; the sooner an acute ear infection is treated, the lower the chances of it developing into a chronic condition.

What are the Treatments for Ear Infections?

Treatment: Ear Tubes

Treating an ear infection begins at home. To help soothe symptoms, gently press a warm washcloth against the affected ear. You may give your child eardrops and over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help relieve pain. Avoid aspirin, which can be dangerous to young children.

Your child’s doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat a chronic ear infection. These should be taken until used up, even if your child’s symptoms appear to be improving; otherwise, the infection could worsen.

When medication is not effective, a surgical solution involving ear tubes may be considered. These are inserted in the middle ear and provide ventilation and fluids, keeping the ear clear and preventing infection. Most ear tubes remain in place anywhere from six to 18 months and eventually fall out on their own. If not, surgery to remove them is performed.

Are There Complications from Untreated Ear Infections?

If left untreated, chronic ear infections can lead to a variety of complications including:

  • Hearing loss
  • Damage to the bones in the middle ear
  • Balance problems
  • A middle ear cyst called a cholesteatoma
  • Facial paralysis
  • Inflammation of the brain

For these reasons, early detection and treatment are crucial. Better still is prevention.

You can’t always stave off an ear infection, but there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of your child developing one. These include breast-feeding your baby, making sure he or she is up-to-date on vaccinations, practicing good hygiene (e.g., regular hand-washing), keeping your child away from tobacco smoke, and enrolling them in as small a day care or preschool facility as possible. Simply put, fewer children mean fewer germs.

Types Of Ear Infection

The ear is made up of three sections: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. Each of these areas is susceptible to infections, which can be painful. Young children have a greater tendency to get earaches. While most ear pain resolves itself in a matter of days, you should get a physical examination to understand the type of infection, prevent it from spreading and obtain treatment to alleviate the pain.

Outer Ear Infection (Otitis Externa)

Also known as Swimmer’s Ear, outer ear infections result from an inflammation, often bacterial, in the outer ear. Generally, they happen when water, sand, or dirt gets into the ear canal. Moisture in the air or swimming makes the ear more susceptible to this type of ear infection. Symptoms include severe pain, itching, redness, and swelling in the outer ear. There also may be some fluid drainage. Often the pain is worse when chewing or when you pull on the ear. To reduce pain and prevent other long-term effects on the ear, be sure to see a doctor. Complications from untreated otitis externa may include hearing loss, recurring ear infections, and bone and cartilage damage. Typically, your doctor will prescribe eardrops that block bacterial growth. In more severe cases, your doctor may also prescribe an antibiotic and pain medication. Most outer ear infections resolve in seven to ten days.

See the PDF below for at-home treatment of Swimmer’s Ear

Middle Ear Infection (Otitis Media)

Middle ear infections can be caused by either bacterial or viral infections. These infections may be triggered by airborne or foodborne allergies, infections elsewhere in the body, nutritional deficiencies or a blocked Eustachian tube. In chronic cases, a thick, glue-like fluid may be discharged from the middle ear. Treatment is contingent on the infection’s and ranges from analgesic eardrops, medications to the surgical insertion of a tube to drain fluid from the middle ear or an adenoidectomy.

Inner Ear Infection (Otitis Interna)

Also known as labyrinthitis, inner ear infections are most commonly caused by other infections in the body, particularly sinus, throat, or tooth infections. Symptoms include dizziness, fever, nausea, vomiting, hearing loss, and tinnitus. Always seek medical attention if you think you may have an inner ear infection.

If you suspect you or your child may have an ear infection, please contact our office and schedule an appointment with one of our otolaryngologists.

Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection) in Adults

Otitis media is an infection or inflammation occurring in the middle ear. This infection is common in children but can also happen in adults. Life-threatening complications are very rare with otitis media. However, they may develop because the middle ear is close to the middle and posterior cranial fossa. Because otitis media has a high prevalence with the potential to cause serious harm, it is a public health concern.

Otitis media is often a result of another illness, such as a cold or flu. It is caused by a bacterium or virus in the middle ear following congestion and swelling in the ears, nose, or throat.

The onset of symptoms of otitis media is typically rapid. Some common signs in adults include:

  • Pain in the ear
  • Diminished hearing
  • Fluid drainage from the ear

Adults who had recurrent ear infections as a child may have complications related to dysfunction of the eustachian tube. However, adults may also experience a new onset of middle ear infections, which can be diagnosed by a physician.

A doctor can typically diagnose otitis media based on the symptoms presented by the patient. The doctor usually uses an otoscope to look inside the ears, throat, and nasal passages. The doctor will also listen to a patient breathing with a stethoscope.

Acute otitis media is a self-limiting disease, as long as the patient does not develop complications from the infection. At the current time, antibiotics are the best and most common initial therapy of choice for otitis media. Some other pharmacologic therapies that have been used to treat otitis media include analgesics and antipyretics. These play an important role in the management of symptoms. Decongestants and antihistamines may help to relieve some of the nasal symptoms that come along with otitis media, but they do not appear to have an effect on the infection itself.

There are some risk factors of otitis media in adults, including poor tubal function. When the eustachian tube, which begins in the back of the nose next to the soft palate, doesn’t function normally, the body’s fluid or bacteria can become trapped inside of the ear, leading to an infection.

Some people may be more prone to this than others. Some risk factors include:

  • Presence of upper respiratory tract infections
  • Seasonal allergies
  • Mucosal disease in the ears, nose, or throat
  • Enlarged adenoids or turbinates in the ears, nose, or throat
  • Craniofacial disorders such as cleft palate
  • Weakened immune system

In order to avoid otitis media, it is best to keep your ears as dry as possible. Use earplugs before swimming or bathing if you are prone to ear infections, and gently dry your ears with a hair blow dryer on a low setting after exposing your ears to water. Also, avoid inserting objects into the ear or swimming in dirty water.

Chronic ear infections can have a large impact on your quality of life. A general physician can treat isolated cases of otitis media; however, if you have frequent ear infections as an adult, it is best to Dr. Don Beasley, Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist to help identify the underlying issue.