What is an ear infection?
Ear Infections An ear infection is inflammation of the inner, middle or outer ear, as a result of bacterium or a virus. The most common type is a middle ear infection, sometimes called acute otitis media. Middle ear infections affect children and adults, but children are more frequently affected. Children are more likely to get a middle ear infection because their ears do not drain fluids as well as adult ears; and because their immune systems are immature.
It is normal for toddlers to get one to two ear infections each year. When a toddler gets 4 or more infections a year it is time to think about ear tubes.
What are the symptoms of an ear infection?
General symptoms in children include:
- pulling on the ear
- difficulty sleeping
- problems hearing
- balance issues
Types of ear infections, symptoms and treatments
Outer ear infections (Swimmer’s Ear)
The outer ear is the part of the ear canal outside of the eardrum. The most common outer ear infection is called swimmer’s ear because it may be triggered by outside water sitting in the ear canal which creates a perfect environment for bacteria to grow and cause an infection. Your can get an outer ear infection without swimming.
Common symptoms are an earache, itching in the ear canal, fluid drainage and crusting, ringing (tinnitus), and a sensation of fullness or pressure. Treatment is focused on symptomatic relief. Most outer ear infections are mild and resolve in a few weeks.
Middle ear infections (otitis media)
The middle ear is made of the eardrum and the space behind the eardrum which is connected by the Eustachian tube to the back of the nose. The Eustachian tube controls pressure in the ear and drains fluid from the middle ear.
The middle ear is a common location for infection because the Eustachian tube can be easily swollen or blocked due to an upper respiratory infection, a cold, the flu and nasal allergies.
Symptoms include ear pressure, pain, fever and sometimes discharge from the ear canal if the build-up of pressure causes a rupture of the ear drum. Most middle ear infections are mild and resolve in a few weeks, however some children suffer with chronic middle ear infections, where the fluid and abnormal pressures remain for more than 3 months.
Ear tubes may be placed for prevention of multiple recurrent ear infections or to treat fluid in the ear that chronically will not drain.
Inner ear infections (labyrinthitis)
The inner ear is responsible for balance and hearing. It contains the cochlea, a spiral shaped organ, that relays sound to the brain and allows us hear. The vestibular system is a set of fluid filled channels that detects head movement to help with balance.
Inner ear infections are typically caused by a virus. Symptoms of an inner ear infection include dizziness, nausea, headaches, tinnitus, ear pain, vision changes, and possibly some hearing loss. Many inner ear infections resolve on their own after several weeks. When the symptoms last longer, they can significantly impact quality of life.
How is an ear infection diagnosed?
Diagnosis will be based on symptoms, your medical history and a physical examination. The ear, nose, and throat doctors at Fayetteville Otolaryngology will use an instrument called an otoscope to view the inside of the ear and eardrum. They will look for inflammation, fluid, swelling, or a buildup of earwax. Hearing tests may be recommended. Imaging or blood test may also be indicated.