Healthy Living

What Is an Ear Infection?

What Is an Ear Infection?

Key Takeaways

  • Ear infections are often called otitis media.
  • They may be caused by a viral or bacterial infection.
  • Chronic otitis media can recur several times and even cause permanent damage to your ears.

An ear infection, which is also called otitis media, is the infection of the middle portion of the ear. Ear infections may be caused by viral or bacterial infections. The infected portion of the ear typically becomes inflamed and causes fluid to buildup in the middle ear. The middle ear is what we call the region behind the eardrum where vibrations are picked up by tiny bones that pass them along the inner ear. When inflammation and fluid build-up occurs in the middle ear, ear infections can be extremely painful.

This condition is common in infants, and while it is usually found in children, adults can be affected too. The infection in the middle ear is often caused by a common cold, flu or other respiratory infection. These types of infections can impact the middle ear because it is connected to the upper respiratory tract. The eustachian tube is the minuscule passageway connecting the body parts. Germs found in the nose and/or sinus cavities can travel through the eustachian tube, make their way to the the middle ear, and start growing there. Thus, when such bacteria or virus spreads it can result in ear infections.

These ear infections are very common and most parents are aware of this. In fact, a study showed that ear infection was the reason why more than 30 million visits were made to the pediatrician or doctor in a single year in the United States alone. We can imagine how large the number would be if the whole world was taken into account. 

In today’s world, antibiotic prescriptions for ear infections comprise for nearly half of all prescriptions that are prescribed for children. Antibiotics are a common resort of treatment for ear infections. If ear infections are left untreated, more serious damages can occur. Such complications include:

An ear infection can be acute or chronic. Acute ear infections (acute otitis media) last for a short period. Chronic ear infections (chronic otitis media) can be persistent and recur several times causing permanent damage to the ears.

Causes of Ear Infections

The middle ear is a tiny place that should be well-ventilated by the air that passes through from the nose to keep it dry. When fresh air is unable to pass through the middle ear due to a clogged or blocked eustachian tube, the middle ear becomes damp, warm and stagnant, thus creating the perfect breeding place or ground for germs. In infants and young children, the eustachian tube is underdeveloped and very soft. This creates a difficult condition for air to properly pass into the middle ear. Other factors like allergies, sinus infections, the common cold and post nasal drainage are also some reasons that hamper the functioning of this tube thus resulting in infections within the middle ear.

A viral infection in the upper respiratory tract, such as a cold or the flu, is most often the cause that leads to an ear infection. Sometimes, ear infections can be so severe that the eustachian tube becomes so swollen that the passage is completely blocked. Other reasons for having ear infections include pollen, dust particles, animal fur or dander. Food can also have the same effect on the eustachian tube as that of a flu or cold. If bacteria enters the ear directly, this can also result in an ear infection.

When the eustachian tube that runs from the back of the throat into the middle ear becomes swollen and inflamed, fluid fills the cavity of the middle ear and becomes infected. Allergic reactions, sinusitis, colds, smoking and swollen adenoids can also block the eustachian tubes and result in an ear infection.

Who is at Risk of Ear Infections?

Younger children have eustachian tubes that are shorter and more narrow thus making them more vulnerable for ear infections than adults. Other factors that make a person more susceptible to ear infections are:

  • Bottle feeding 
  • Drastic changes in the climate/temperature of living environment
  • Smoking
  • Recent illness

Symptoms of an Ear Infection

Symptoms that often indicate ear infection are:

  • Ear pain
  • Discharge from the ears
  • Feeling of pressure inside the ears
  • Irritability and reduced feeding in infants
  • Loss of hearing
  • High fever (especially in children less than 6 months)

How are Ear Infections Diagnosed?

After observing the medical history, doctors typically examine a patient's ears with a tool called an otoscope. It has a magnifying lens and a light that helps them see the inside of the ear canal better. This otoscope examination may reveal redness, pus, fluid and a perforated or bulging ear drum. These are all factors indicating ear infections.

In certain cases, doctors may take a sample of the fluid from the ear and have it analyzed to find out the cause of the infection. If the infection is severe, the doctor may recommend a CT scan of the head to see if the infection has spread beyond the ear canals.

In patients who have chronic or recurring ear infections, a hearing test may be necessary. This is because chronic ear infections can cause permanent damage to the ears.

Treating Ear Infections

A mild ear infection usually does not need any special treatment as it will clear up on its own. However, the following methods can help to relieve symptoms.

  • Take over-the-counter painkillers to reduce pain.
  • Taking decongestant medications may help to relieve the blockage in the eustachian tubes.
  • Apply a warm, wet cloth to the affected ear.

If your ear infection does not improve or the symptoms seem to be worsening, always consult your physician. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics in these cases.

If the ear infection is due to enlarged adenoids, your doctor may recommend surgical removal of the adenoids. Actual ear surgery may be recommended if the ear infections do not seem to improve with medical therapy. In this procedure, a tube may be inserted inside the ear to drain out the pus or other fluids.