Ear Infections: Symptoms, Causes and Treatment

Overview

An ear infection is a bacterial or viral infection that affects most often the middle ear, the sections of the ear just behind the eardrum. Ear infections occur when a virus, bacteria or fungi target the inner, outer or middle areas of the ear, causing inflammation and fluid buildup. These infections may either be acute or chronic. Acute ear infections are painful but short in duration. Chronic ear infections can cause permanent damage to the middle and inner ear. The infection in the middle ear is often accompanied by a common cold, the flu, or other types of respiratory infections. Children are more likely to get ear infections than adults.

Causes

Ear infections occur when one of your eustachian tubes becomes swollen or blocked, causing fluid to build up in your middle ear. Ear infections are more common in children, partly because their eustachian tubes are narrower and more horizontal, which make them more difficult to drain and easier to get blocked. Ear infections in adults are typically caused by germs, such as viruses, a fungus, or bacteria.

Other possible causes of ear inflections include:

  • allergies
  • cold or flu
  • sinus infections
  • excess mucus
  • infected or swollen adenoids
  • changes in air pressure
  • smoking
  • frequently swimming and bathing

Symptoms

Ear infections can strike in any part of the ear and cause various symptoms. The three main parts of the ear are known as the inner, middle, and outer ear. Infections are most common in the middle ear and outer ear. Inner ear infections are less frequent and sometimes a sign of another underlying condition.

  • Middle ear infections

Infections occur in the middle ear cause pain and a feeling of plugged ears. Some people may have difficulty in hearing. There is also a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum, which can make hearing more difficult. It may feel as if the affected ear is underwater. Besides, a fever and general tiredness can be also triggered by a middle ear infection.

  • Outer ear infections

Common symptoms of outer ear infections include an ear or ear canal is painful, swollen, and tender to the touch. The skin may become red and warm until the infection goes away.

Other possible symptoms and signs include:

  • Ears feel plugged up
  • Ringing in ears
  • Dizziness
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Fussiness in young infants
  • Difficulty sleeping

Diagnosis

To diagnose ear infections, the doctor will first review a patient’s medical history and ask some basic questions. The doctor may use an instrument called an otoscope with a light and magnifying lens to look at the eardrum and ear canal for signs of infection. This procedure may be accompanied by a small puff of air. If the infection is advanced, the doctor will take a sample of the fluid inside the patient’s ear and test it to determine whether certain types of antibiotic-resistant bacteria are present. They may also order a computed tomography (CT) scan of the patient’s head to determine if the infection has spread beyond the middle ear. If the condition isn’t responded to previous procedures, or if there are other persistent or serious problems, several tests are needed: tympanometry, acoustic reflectometry and tympanocentesis.

Treatment

The treatments of ear infections vary depending on the severity of the condition as well as the age of the patient. Most mild symptoms usually improve within a couple of days, and infections clear up on their own within one to two weeks without any treatment. If the symptoms get worse or don’t improve, the doctor may prescribe some antibiotics. Surgery may be an option if the ear infection isn’t eliminated with the previous medical treatments. In cases that involve enlarged adenoids, surgical removal of the adenoids may be necessary.

  • Antibiotics and other prescriptions

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), using antibiotics by mouth may not be recommended in certain cases of middle and outer ear infections and antibiotics are not effective against ear infections caused by viruses. Prescription eardrops may also be an option to alleviate pain symptoms and treat ear infections.

  • Over-the-counter medications

Drugs, including acetaminophen and ibuprofen may help many adults with ear infections relieve the pain associated with the accompanying inflammation. Decongestants or antihistamines, such as pseudoephedrine or diphenhydramine may also help relieve some symptoms, especially those caused by excess mucus in the eustachian tubes. If a child under the age of 2 has ear infection symptoms, a doctor will likely give them antibiotics as well. There drugs may help get rid of the pain, but they can not treat the infection itself.


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* The Content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.