Ear Infection

Information on the causes of ear infection symptoms.

Select a Topic

  1. What is an Ear Infection?
  2. Diagnosing Ear Infections
  3. What causes Ear Infections?
  4. Help for Ear Infections
  5. More Information on Ear Infections

What is an Ear Infection?

Ear infections are one of the most common childhood illnesses but they can also affect adults. An ear infection usually occurs in the middle part of the ear, behind the eardrum and is known as a middle ear infection (otitis media). Otitis media develops when the middle ear becomes inflamed or infected as a result of a cold, allergy or upper respiratory infection

When the ear is infected, it can be extremely painful and cause much discomfort and irritability. Most infections do not require treatment and clear up on their own within a few days. However, recurring and persistent infections can cause serious complications to the ear such as short-term and long-term hearing loss as well as a ruptured eardrum.

There are different types of ear infections and these include:

  • Acute otitis media (AOM) Parts of the ear become swollen and infected and fluid and water is blocked inside the ear
  • *Otitis media with effusion (OME) *
  • Fluid forms in the middle ear and remains there even after the infection has cleared
  • Otitis externa (swimmer’s ear)
  • An infection develops in the outer ear when water is trapped in the ear canal and typically affects swimmers
  • Suppurative otitis media
  • An ear infection with drainage which lasts for more than two weeks can develop from recurring ear infections
  • Otitis interna (inner ear infection)
  • The inner ear becomes infected which is caused by water trapped inside the ear by earwax

Diagnosing Ear Infections

The diagnosis of an ear infection is based on the symptoms, a physical examination and a review of the medical history is taken. An otoscope, a lighted instrument is used to look for inflammation in the middle ear.

If a build-up of fluid develops without infection (otitis media with effusion), a pneumatic otoscope is used to push air into the ear.

Additional tests for ear infections may also be performed and these include a tympanometry (to measure eardrum movement) or acoustic reflectometry (to project sounds of varying frequencies into he ear).

Most children affected by ear infections often do not have the language or speech capabilities to let someone know what is wrong with them.

Common symptoms and signs include:
  • Tug or pull at one or both ears
  • Irritability
  • Crying more than usual
  • Difficulty falling asleep
  • Earache
  • Fever
  • Fails to respond to sounds and has difficulty hearing
  • Headaches
  • Fluid drains from the ears
  • Earache or ear pain

What causes Ear Infections?

There are various causes and factors that may contribute to ear infection and these include:

  • Bacterial or viral infection that cause colds
  • Problems within the eustachian tubes such as swelling blockage or dysfunction of these tubes
  • Swelling of the adenoids
  • Children have underdeveloped immune systems and are more prone to infections

Help for Ear Infections

There are various treatment options available for ear infections depending on the patient’s age, medical history, type of infection and level of pain. In children older than six months who present with mild symptoms, are otherwise healthy or the diagnosis is uncertain a wait-and-see approach is generally recommended for the first 72 hours.

Ear infections usually clear on there own in a few days without treatment and antibiotics should not to be used to treat an infection caused by a virus. Some self-care strategies such as applying a warm, moist compress on the affected ear or inserting warm oil into the ear can also ease the pain and discomfort.

Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help to relieve pain and discomfort. Prescription eardrops containing a local anesthetic such as Otocain and Auralgan can reduce more severe pain and inflammation.

The eardrops should be warmed in warm water and the child should be lying down while you insert the drops into the infected ear. Your doctor may recommend an antibiotic if your child is younger than six months, has two or more infections within 30 days or chronic otitis media with effusion. Remember that the full course of antibiotics have to be taken for treatment to be effective.

Keep in mind that antibiotic should not be used for to treat an infection caused by a virus. In cases where your child is experiencing recurrent ear infections that do not respond to antibiotics or fluid in the ear is affecting his hearing, surgery may be recommended. A surgical procedure such as a myringotomy is performed in which a small drainage tube is inserted through the eardrum.

More Information on Ear Infections

There are certain risk factors that can cause your child to become susceptible to ear infections and these include:
  • Children between the ages 6 and 18 months as well as from the ages of 4 months to 4 years
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke and high levels of air pollution
  • Group child care such as overcrowded day care settings
  • Family history of ear infections
  • Bottle-feeding a baby while he or she is lying down
  • Ear infections are most common during the fall and winter seasons
  • American Indians and Eskimos from Canada or Alaska tend to develop more ear infections than Caucasians.
There are certain things that can be done to prevent ear infections as well as relieve the pain and discomfort associated with this condition.
  • Breastfeed your child for six months or longer to lower his or her chance of getting an ear infection
  • Keep your home smoke-free and protect your child from second-hand smoke
  • Avoid exposing your child to other sick children, especially those in crowded daycare settings
  • Hold your baby in an upright position if you are bottle-feeding him or her – the milk can irritate the Eustachian tube if the baby is bottle-fed lying down
  • Place a warm, moist cloth on the affected ear
  • Use steam, saline nose drops or suctioning to keep the nose clear when symptoms of a cold begins
  • Boost your child’s immune system by incorporating more fresh fruit and vegetables into their diet
  • Teach your child good hygiene habits such as washing his or her hands before eating, after using the bathroom and playing with pets
  • Learn to recognize allergy symptoms and keep them under control as they can cause ear infections
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