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, negative pressure, 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 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: Causes inflammation of the external ear canal. Often referred to as swimmer's ear because repeated water exposure can make the ear canal more vulnerable to inflammation

What causes an ear infection?

Your middle ear is the small space behind the eardrum that should be well ventilated by air that passes up from behind the nose through the Eustachian tube. This keeps the middle ear clean, dry, and healthy. An ear infection can occur when one of your Eustachian tubes becomes blocked or swollen which causes fluid to build up in your middle ear and creates the ideal breeding ground for germs.

The eustachian tube can become blocked as a result of:

  • Head cold
  • Allergies
  • Sinus infection
  • Excess mucus
  • Smoking
  • Changes in air pressure
  • Swollen or infected tonsils and/or adenoids

What are the symptoms of ear infections?

Some of the most common ear infection symptoms are:

  • Pain inside the ear
  • A high temperature
  • Being sick
  • Lethargic
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Discharge out of the ear
  • A feeling of fullness or pressure inside the ear
  • Irritation and itching in and around the ear
  • Flaky skin in and around the ear
  • Drainage from the ear

These symptoms can occur in one or both ears and can either come and go or may persist. You will likely experience more severe pain if you have an infection in both ears. Symptoms of a chronic ear infection are often less noticeable than symptoms of an acute ear infection.

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 discomfort 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 appear to be improving. 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, bobby pins 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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