Our ear consists of three parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. Infections can occur in any part of the ear, but middle ear infections are the most common. The middle ear is the part of your ear located between your eardrums and inner ear. It is the air-filled space that contains the tiny vibrating bones of the ear. Bacteria or viruses in the middle ear can cause an infection. Middle ear infections tend to occur more commonly among children than adults. Ear infections are not contagious, although the colds that may cause them are.
Causes of Middle Ear Infection
There are many reasons for the cause of middle ear infections. Illnesses like cold, flu, or allergies, which cause congestion and swelling of the nasal passage, throat, and Eustachian tube, can often result in middle ear infections.
Types of Middle Ear Infections
Middle ear infection, or Otitis media, is the inflammation of the middle ear. It can be caused by a viral or bacterial infection. Otitis media can be classified as acute otitis media or chronic otitis media, according to the duration of the symptoms.
Acute otitis media- This is an infection of the middle ear due to collection of fluid behind the eardrum. It causes earache and sometimes fever.
Otitis media with effusion – In this type of infection, the fluid still remains trapped behind the eardrum. Although, the child may not display any symptoms, doctors can see this fluid through examination with special instruments.
Chronic Otitis Media with infection – This occurs when the fluid behind the eardrum keeps appearing and disappearing without any infection present. This can affect the hearing of the child.
Most middle ear infections usually heal on their own in a couple of days without treatment.
Symptoms of Middle Ear Infections
The symptoms of an ear infection in an adult include:
- Nasal congestion – This is the most common symptom that accompanies an ear infection. However, most people fail to recognize this as a symptom of an ear infection and commonly mistake this as a common cold.
- Fever – These patients could have a fever above 100 degrees Fahrenheit. However, not everyone with an ear infection will develop a fever. Therefore, if you have all the other symptoms of an ear infection, do not wait until a fever appears to start treatment.
- Discharge from the ear
- Itchiness, redness, and warmth of the ear – The urge to itch should be avoided as much as possible, as it could further spread the infection, as well as damage your eardrum.
- Ear pain – This is due to the build-up of fluid within the middle ear, causing pressure on the ear drum, and therefore, pain. The pain is usually severe, and most patients say the pain score is about 7 out of 10 on a pain scale.
- Loss of appetite – Chewing or swallowing food can exacerbate your ear pain, thus resulting in loss of appetite. This is a common symptom in small children. As they cannot communicate their complaints about earache, reduced feeding can be a sign of an ear infection in them.
- Sleeping problems – An ear infection will prevent patients from having a sound sleep due to the continuous earache.
- Temporary hearing loss
- Dizziness and loss of balance
Babies are more susceptible to ear infections because they have shorter, horizontal Eustachian tubes that connect the back of the throat to the middle ear, so germs can easily collect inside the ear when the child is asleep. The symptoms of ear infection in children include:
- Earache – Children who can communicate verbally will complain of ear pain, but babies cannot. They will tend to pull their ear often, and that could be a sign of an ear infection.
- Reduced feeding – When babies suck milk, they apply some pressure on their ear drums, which will trigger the pain. Therefore, babies with ear infections will have reduced feeding.
- Irritation – Babies will cry more often than usual due to the ear pain. If your baby is crying a lot more than before, consult your pediatrician as early as possible. It could be a sign of an infection.
- Difficulty sleeping
- Discharge from the ears
- Do not respond to sounds – This could be due to a temporary hearing loss.
- Tugging at the ear
- Problems with balance
If you or your child has any of the above-mentioned signs and symptoms, visit your physician as early as possible before any serious complications occur.
Other Ear Infections
Swimmers Ear – Also known as Otitis externa, this is an infection of the outer ear canal. This is caused by water that remains in the ear after swimming. The moist environment in the ear causes bacteria to develop. It can be treated with ear drops. It is important to treat this infection promptly in order to avoid further complications. Initially, the symptoms may be itching, slight pain, and so on. If not treated the symptoms progress and they may be severe pain, discharge of pus, and blockage of ear canal, and so on. If you notice any symptoms of swimmers ear, consult your doctor at the earliest convenience.
Other Causes of Ear Infections
Earache can also be caused by:
- Foreign body in the ear
- Hard wax
Complications of Ear Infections
- Dulled hearing – Even after the infection has cleared, it is common for some fluid to remain behind the ear. This may cause dulled hearing, which will resolve in a short a week or so, and hearing will return to normal.
- Glue Ear - Sometimes the fluid does not clear properly, or repeated ear infections ‘glue’ ear may develop. See a doctor if dulled hearing continues after an infection has gone.
- Perforation of ear drum - Sometimes the ear drum perforates, but it usually heals within weeks once the infection clears. If the perforation remains for a long-period of time, then treatment may be required to repair it.
Make sure you seek medical advice if you have any of these signs or symptoms. The problems arising can most definitely be curbed. It’s true when they say, “A stitch in time save nine.”