At one time or another, either you or someone you know has had an ear infection. Ear infections can result from a variety of factors. They commonly occur in children but can also happen to adults. Early treatment will prevent long-lasting, even permanent problems such as hearing loss. Ear infections are not contagious since they generally happen from an irritation, bacterial, or viral infection.
Types of Ear Infections
Otitis media, or middle ear infection, occurs usually in young children and babies. The most common type of ear infection, it involves an inflammation of the middle ear and a build-up of fluid or pus. Middle ear infections tend to be viral and often can go away on their own, depending on the severity.
OME, or otitis media effusion, involves both the middle and inner ear. Simply put, it means fluid that has built up in the middle ear. It usually happens after a middle ear infection and commonly occurs with children under the age of two.
Chronic otitis media can happen when the fluid in the ear does not go away with treatment or keeps coming back. Generally, this chronic middle ear infection lasts six weeks or longer. Tubes may be inserted into the ears to help with drainage if the problem does not stop on its own or with treatments.
Otitis externa, or swimmer’s ear, usually occurs in the summer months in children. It can be very painful when tugging on a child’s ear lobe and the inside will appear red and swollen. Drops can be given to relieve the pain and inflammation. Cotton placed in the child’s ear will help to keep it dry until it abates.
Mastoiditis occurs if a middle ear infection goes untreated. When that happens, the bone behind the ear, or the mastoid process, then becomes infected. This infection has dangerous results if not treated with intravenous antibiotics such as deafness, brain injury, blood poisoning, and even death.
Causes of Ear Infections
When the Eustachian tubes in the middle ear become swollen or clogged, an infection can be the result. Ear infections occur most commonly in children because of the narrow tubes and canals in their ears. Swimmer’s ear, an outer ear infection, happens from bathing or showering too frequently or from swimming in unchlorinated water such as untreated pools or lakes.
Other causes of ear infections can also include the following:
• Use of unclean headphones or hearing aids
• Skin allergies
• Irritations from hair products
• Colds or flu
• Sinus infections
• Infected or swollen tonsils
Symptoms of Ear Infections
Symptoms for an ear infection can vary, depending on the severity and the location of the ear infection. Some ear infections may not even have any noticeable symptoms until a doctor looks into the ear.
The most common symptoms of an ear infection can be found below:
• A persistent feeling of pressure in the ear
• Pus-like drainage
• Hearing loss
• Mild pain
• Fussiness in children along with rubbing of the ears
Treatment of Ear Infections
Treatment of ear infections can depend on the type and the severity. Some, in fact, just need time to clear themselves up. Proper and early treatment can prevent any permanent damage to the ear and hearing.
Pain relievers such as Tylenol or Ibuprofen can be used to relieve any ear pain and any possible fever. Since most pain seems to get worse at bedtime, taking a dose before bed will usually help with 45 minutes to an hour.
Antibiotics may be prescribed for ear infections caused by bacteria and not a cold or flu. Make sure to completely finish the required course of antibiotics to ensure the infection is gone. Antibiotics can have side effects such as diarrhea and nausea.
Ear tubes may be needed for persistent ear infections or when fluid in the ear refuses to drain on its own. Usually a last course of action by a physician, they can be temporarily placed to remove the pressure and built-up fluid. The tubes will generally fall out on their own.
Risks of Ear Infections
An untreated bacterial ear infection can have grave consequences. Some viral ear infections can go away on their own. A physician can determine the cause and treatment needed, if any. An untreated middle ear infection can result in meningitis, mastoiditis, hearing loss, speech impairment, and even facial paralysis.
Certain factors can increase the risk of recurring ear infections. Because of the smaller tubes in their ears, children are more susceptible to ear infections after having a cold. Certain medical illnesses or birth defects like cleft palates and Down’s syndrome can be risk factors for ear infections. Repeated episodes of colds and respiratory illnesses can cause ears to become infected or blocked with fluid. Pacifiers can also cause small children to have more ear infections.
Prevention of Ear Infections
You can help your child from getting recurring ear infections.
• Not smoking is key. Smoking in another area or even outside is not good enough. Even the fumes from your hands and clothing can cause your child to have an ear infection.
• Breast feeding has been shown to reduce a child’s chance of developing an ear infection. If bottle fed, make sure your child is sitting up and not lying down.
• Pacifiers should not be used for children over 6 months of age. Children using pacifiers over a year old have been more vulnerable to ear infections than those weaned off them at an early age.
• Wear earplugs when swimming or bathing to prevent swimmer’s ear.
• Take a decongestant when you have a cold.
• Avoid the use of cotton swabs to clean your ears.
Although not contagious, ear infections can lead to more serious problems. Prevention and early treatment are essential to avoid recurring episodes. Although more common with young children, the chances of recurring ear infections should slow down as they grow older and the tubes in their ears mature.
Common after colds or the flu, preventive measures can reduce the chances of getting a middle ear infection. Always check with your doctor for a diagnosis and get the proper treatment.