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.
Why Do Children Get Ear Infections so Frequently?
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.
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.
Can an Ear Infection 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 cyst called a cholesteatoma, facial paralysis and inflammation of the brain. For these reasons, early detection and treatment are crucial. Better still is prevention.
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 call a mastoid infection or mastoiditis. As the infection spreads, potentially reaching the brain, the bone is destroyed, resulting in hearing loss. 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 ear lobe and 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. Chronic cases may require frequent visits for thorough ear cleanings. When antibiotics fail to treat the problem adequately, or it recurs frequently, a mastoid surgery, or mastoidectomy may be necessary.
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.NPR
Your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat a chronic ear infection. Common options include amoxicillin. Antibiotics should always be taken as prescribed until the course of treatment is complete, even if you or your child’s symptoms appear to be improving; otherwise, the infection could worsen.
Surgery for Chronic Infections
When medication is not effective, a surgical solution involving ear tubes may be considered. These are inserted in the tympanic membrane, commonly known as the ear drum, and provide ventilation, 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.