Otitis and ear infection

Ear infections are one of the most common types of ear diseases and can affect the outer, middle or inner ear.

If you’ve had an ear infection, you will know just how painful they can be, and that is due to a build-up of fluid and inflammation in the middle ear. Ear infections can be acute, which are usually only short-term but very painful or chronic which can cause permanent damage to the middle ear and can either recur many times or don’t clear up.

Types of ear infection

There are several types of ear infection, including:

  • Middle ear infection (otitis media): This can occur when either bacteria or a virus causes inflammation behind the eardrum. Most middle ear infections will go away without medication
  • Acute otitis media: This type of ear infection will come on suddenly and includes redness of the ears and inflammation inside the ear, behind and around the eardrum
  • Otitis media with effusion: Sometimes fluid and mucus will continue to build-up in the middle ear, even after the initial infection appears to go away. This is known as otitis media with effusion. It can make your ear feel full and affect your hearing
  • Otitis externa: More commonly known as swimmer's ear, it causes inflammation of the external ear canal, especially after repeated exposure to water

What causes an ear infection?

The small area behind your eardrum is considered your middle ear and this ear needs to be kept well ventilated at all times by the air that passes up through it from behind the nose and through the Eustachian tube. This helps to ensure your middle ear stays clean and dry. However, if one of the Eustachian tubes becomes inflamed or blocked, this can cause a build-up of fluid in the middle ear and create the ideal breeding ground for germs and ear infection to develop.

The eustachian tube can become blocked as a result of:

  • Head cold or flu
  • Allergies
  • Sinus infection
  • Excess mucus
  • Regular smoking
  • Changes in air pressure (such as on a flight)
  • Swollen or infected adenoids (common in children)

What are the symptoms of ear infections?

While infection in your ear can cause pain and discomfort, other ear infection symptoms can include:

  • High temperature
  • Vomiting
  • Lethargic
  • Reduced hearing
  • Discharge and/or unpleasant odour coming out of the ear
  • A pressure or fullness sensation inside the ear
  • Your ears feel irritated and itchy
  • Dry skin inside or around the ear

These symptoms may come and go or you may have them constantly in either one or both ears. If you both of your ears are infected then the pain and discomfort will likely be significantly worse.

How are ear infections treated?

Most mild ear infections will clear up on their own without the need for ear infection treatment. However, there are things you can do to help relieve some of the discomforts of a mild ear infection:

  • Put a warm cloth on the affected ear
  • Take over-the-counter pain relief medication
  • Use over-the-counter or prescribed ear drops

If your symptoms don’t improve or they get worse, you should see your doctor. They may prescribe you antibiotics if your ear infection doesn’t seem to be getting any better. If your ear infection isn’t resolved with the usual medical treatments or if you experience several ear infections over a short time, your doctor may suggest surgery to drain the fluid.

How to prevent ear infections

While it is not possible to prevent all ear infections, there are steps you can take to help avoid future infections:

  • Treat conditions that may affect your ears such as allergies or eczema
  • Do not insert anything into your ears such as cotton swabs or your fingers
  • Wear a swimming hat over your ears or wear earplugs when you swim
  • Wash your hands regularly
  • Avoid second-hand smoke

If you are concerned about your ears or think you may have an ear infection, schedule a consultation with your hearing care professional or doctor for an examination and treatment plan.

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