Ear infections are a common problem and inflict discomfort, muffled hearing, and ear pain on millions of people each year. Children are especially vulnerable to ear infections, with approximately 9 million kids seeing doctors for infection-related ear pain annually. So how do you get an ear infection, and what treatment is available?
kids seeing doctors for infection-related ear pain annually
Our ears connect to the back of our throats through tiny openings called Eustachian tubes. Eustachian tubes help control air pressure in the middle ear, so the pressure in the ear remains the same as air pressure in the surrounding environment.
Certain factors can block the Eustachian tubes, creating a warm, moist, and enclosed environment in which bacteria and other microorganisms can grow. Colds, flus, allergies, and sinus infections can inflame tissue surrounding the Eustachian tubes, temporarily blocking the tube’s access to the throat. Other causes of middle ear infections include:
Impacted ear wax is a common cause of ear infections. In the case of earwax blockages, the infection may irritate the ear canal skin.
Children have smaller Eustachian tubes that tend to be more horizontal than adult tubes, two factors that increase the chances of Eustachian tube blockages and subsequent infections.
Adults are less likely to develop ear infections, but anyone can develop a middle ear infection at any age. High-risk groups include:
Types of ear infections include:
Medical professionals recognize several types of middle ear infection, including:
Ear infection symptoms in adults are slightly different from the symptoms seen in children. For adults, the symptoms can include:
Ear pain may be sharp and sudden or experienced as a dull, continuous earache. Some adults experience a sharp “stabbing” pain followed by drainage from the ear canal.
Children, especially young children, may have difficulty communicating their symptoms and the cause of their discomfort. Watch for signs such as:
Most ear infections resolve without any long-term complications. Chronic ear infections, however, can cause problems such as:
Ear infection treatment depends on the cause of the infection. If it’s caused by bacteria, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Viral ear infections cannot be treated with antibiotics and are usually left to resolve on their own.
Your doctor may suggest over-the-counter pain medication to reduce fever and ease ear pain. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen are most often recommended. Hot compresses or low heat from heating pads may also provide ear pain relief.
Do not use aspirin to treat ear pain in children. Children who take aspirin have an increased risk of Reye’s Syndrome, which causes dangerous brain and liver swelling.
In cases of chronic otitis media with effusion, where fluid is trapped behind the eardrum, doctors may suggest a particular type of ear infection treatment called a myringotomy. A small hole is made in the eardrum, and a tube inserted to drain excess fluid. This also allows aeration of the tube which can then heal without the body continuing to produce antibodies. A myringotomy reduces ear pain while reducing the risk of future ear infections.
Remember, ear infections are only one cause of temporary hearing loss, muffled hearing, and ear pain. If you experience any of these symptoms, see your doctor or a licensed hearing care professional.
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