Understanding Ear Infections
Signs Of Ear Infection
Ear infections are a common ailment, especially in children. Their smaller ears are not very efficient at draining fluids and their immune systems are still underdeveloped; this makes them more likely to contract certain infections.
Ear infections generally get better without specific treatment in a few days to a couple of weeks, but some ear infections can be signs of more serious problems, so getting a definitive diagnosis and an optimal treatment plan from your doctor is always the best course of action.
Ear infections are defined by their location in the ear canal:
Outer ear infections (otitis externa)
The tube between the outer ear and the eardrum becomes infected
Otitis externa is also known as swimmers ear because it is most often caused by exposure to moisture which remains trapped in the tube long enough for bacteria and other organisms to grow.
Otitis Externa Causes
- Too much moisture in the ear canal
- Moisture remaining in the ear canal for a prolonged period of time
- Swimming and/or showering can alter the acidic environment of the ear canal allowing bacteria or fungi to grow in the ear
- Inserting an object too deep into the ear
The ear canal and outer ear have a layer of skin acting as a barrier to prevent bacteria and fungi infections, but scratching or breaking this barrier by inserting a cotton bud or anything else too deep into the ear can open the way to bacteria or fungi, causing painful ear infections.
Otitis Externa Signs And Symptoms
- Itchy ear canal
- Pain – usually in one ear only
- Red, hot and swollen outer ear
- There may be a fluid or puss like discharge (may be white, yellow, clear or foul smelling and bloody)
- Fluid hardening at the entrance to the ear canal
- Feeling pressure/fullness in the ear
- You may experience some hearing loss
- Swollen/sore glands in the throat
Otitis Externa Treatment
Although otitis externa can clear up without treatment, this can take weeks. If you believe you are suffering an ear infection see your doctor, they will be able to diagnose and prescribe the appropriate medication for a speedy recovery.
What You Can Do At Home
- Avoid getting the ear wet, shower with a shower cap and avoid swimming
- Gently swab the outer ear with cotton wool to remove any discharge or debris
- Remove all jewellery, hearing aids and anything else from the infected ear
- Talk to your pharmacist about using an over the counter pain killer such as ibuprofen to relieve the pain
Middle ear infection (Otitis media)
An infection behind the eardrum
Otitis media is a middle ear infection most common in children, especially those between the ages of 6 months and 3 years
Otitis Media Causes
Otitis media is caused by bacteria or viruses and often originates from respiratory conditions such as a cold or flu. These pathogens can move to the ears through the eustachian tube (the tube which runs from the back of the throat to the middle ear) causing it to swell or become blocked. When fluid is unable to drain effectively from the eustachian tube it builds up putting pressure against the eardrum and often becomes a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses.
Other Reasons Your Eustachian Tube May Become Blocked:
- Sinus infection
- Enlarged or infected adenoids
- Cigarette smoke
- Laying down whilst drinking (in infants)
Otitis Media Signs And Symptoms
- A feeling of fullness in the ear
- Ear pain
- Neck pain
- Loss of balance
- Fluid draining from the ear (yellow, clear or bloody)
- You may have hearing loss until the infection is gone
Otitis Media Treatment
When To See The Doctor – For Children
If you suspect your child has a middle ear infection see your doctor as soon as possible. The presence of an ear infection may indicate a more severe condition so it is important to get a professional diagnosis.
Call Your Child’s Doctor if:
- Symptoms last for more than a day
- Your child is less than 6 months of age
- Your child has severe ear pain
- Your toddler or infant is irritable or sleepless after a cold or other upper respiratory infection
- There is a fluid, pus or bloody discharge from the ear
An adult with severe ear pain or discharge should see their doctor as soon as possible.
What You Can Do At Home
- Talk to your pharmacist about over the counter medications such as ibuprofen for pain and fever
- Talk to your pharmacist about over the counter ear drops
- Placing a warm cloth over the infected area may also help relieve pain
Inner Ear Infection (Otitis Interna)
sometimes called Labyrinthitis
Otitis Interna is an inflammation of the inner ear due to an infection which affects your spatial navigation and balance control.
Otitis Interna Causes May Include:
Trauma to the head and/or surgery may lead to inflammation of the inner ear.
Bacterial And Viral Infections
Any pathogen which can reach the inner ear may lead to an infection, although it is rare to get otitis interna this way because the outer ear (otitis externa) and middle ear (Otitis media) usually become infected first and the pathogen is treated before reaching the inner ear. Common bacteria and viruses which can lead to infection are colds, flu, mumps, measles, shingles and other respiratory infections.
An auto immune condition is a chronic condition where the immune system wrongfully attacks itself. Allergies are a good example of this. When the body reacts to an allergen it can cause inflammation of the inner ear.
Medications And Other Substances
Inner ear inflammation can be caused by many different substances including medications, alcohol, illicit drugs and other toxins. In fact any toxin which can travel through the blood stream can reach the inner ear and cause otitis interna.
- Many medications are known to be ototoxic (effect the inner ear tissue), take a look at this list
Otitis Interna Signs And Symptoms
Due to the underlying cause symptoms of otitis interna may vary
Some people experience:
- Loss of balance
- Visual disturbances
- Pain in the ear
- A feeling of pressure/fullness in the ear
- Neck pain/stiffness
- A watery or pussy discharge from the ear
Otitis Interna Treatment
In otitis interna the treatment plan depends on the underlying cause and as is the case with many self resolving infections sometimes supportive measures may be all that is needed. In other cases a professional treatment plan and prescription medication may be warranted.
Otitis interna can be a sign of more serious problems, or lead to more serious complications if not treated quickly. If you suspect an inner ear infection it is important to see your doctor for a professional diagnosis and appropriate treatment plan.
- Otitis interna is potentially serious and needs to be diagnosed, treated and managed by a medical professional.