Ear infections can occur in the outer or middle ear. This painful affliction is most common in children, but can affect people of all ages. Infections can also occur in the outer ear. They are most common when the skin in the outer ear is dry and cracked. Ear infections can be either acute (of short duration) or chronic (persisting or reoccurring frequently).
What Causes Ear Infections?
An ear infection occurs in the middle ear when fluid becomes trapped following a viral or bacterial infection. 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 upper part of the throat and provides an outlet for fluid drainage, trapping germs and fluid in the middle ear and leading to infection.
Ear infections can occur in the outer or middle ear. 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 (long duration).
What Causes Middle Ear Infections?
An ear infection can occur the middle ear when the eustachian tube becomes blocked by the inflammation caused by a viral or bacterial infection or allergies. This prevents fluid from draining from the middle ear, leading to a middle ear infection.
A middle ear infection can also occur when the eustachian tube fails to close appropriately between swallows. Because the eustachian tube remains constantly open (patulous), bacteria and viruses can move from the throat, through the eustachian tube and into the middle ear and cause infections.
Why Do Children Get Ear Infections so Frequently?
Childrens’ eustachain tubes are shorter, follow a more shallow angle and more likely to be chronically open (patulous) than adults’ eustachian tubes and are more likely to allow bacteria or viruses to enter the middle ear.
What Are the Symptoms of an Ear Infection?
The hallmark signs of otitis media are pain and pressure in the ear and fluid drainage. These may be accompanied by a low-grade fever and 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 their ears.
Should You See a Doctor?
The sooner an acute ear infection is treated, the lower the chances of it developing into a chronic condition. Schedule an appointment with our clinic if:
- You experience fluid discharge, bloody fluid, or pus from your ear.
- Symptoms of an ear infection last longer than a day.
- You are in extreme pain.
- Your child shows symptoms and is under 6 months of age.
- Your toddler or infant shows symptoms following an upper respiratory infection or cold.
How Are Ear Infections Treated?
OTC or Prescription Medication Options
Treating an ear infection begins at home. To help soothe symptoms, gently press a warm washcloth against the affected ear. Eardrops and over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve pain. Avoid aspirin, which can be dangerous to young children.
Up to 80% of ear infections may go away without antibiotics.
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat an ear infection. Common options include amoxicillin. Antibiotics should always be taken until used up, even if the symptoms appear to be improving.
Surgery for Chronic Infections
When medication is not effective, a surgical solution involving ear tubes (tympanostomy tubes) may be considered. Tympanostomy tubes are inserted into the tympanic membrane (ear drum) and provide ventilation, keeping the middle 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.
Can middle Ear Infections Cause Complications?
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 growth called a cholesteatoma, mastoiditis, facial paralysis and infection of the brain. For these reasons, early detection and treatment are crucial.
An Untreated Infection Can Lead to Mastoiditis.
In addition to pain and discomfort, a middle ear infection can cause tiny air cells in the mastoid bone to fill up with pus. This is called a mastoid infection or mastoiditis. As the infection spreads it can cause hearing loss and/or and infection in the brain. If antibiotics are unsuccessful in clearing up the infection, then mastoid surgery may be needed.
What Are the Symptoms of Mastoiditis?
Symptoms of mastoiditis include swelling, redness, and tenderness of the area behind the ear as well as drainage of fluids from the ear, fever, irritability and lethargy.
How Is Mastoiditis Treated?
Many cases of mastoiditis are treated successfully with antibiotics. When antibiotics fail to treat the problem adequately, a mastoid surgery, or mastoidectomy may be necessary.
Outer Ear Infections
Infections of the outer ear (ear canal) are usually referred to as otitis externa, or swimmers ear. This can occur when water gets stuck in the ear canal after swimming. The resulting inflammation can be incredibly painful. It typically requires topical ear drops, often with the placement of a sponge-like wick in the collapsed ear canal to allow the drops to penetrate, as well as strong pain medication.