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 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 can cause the external ear canal to become inflamed, especially after repeated exposure to water

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 or blocked 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 adenoids

What are the symptoms of ear infections?

Some of the most 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

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?

If you have a mild ear infection, then you should find that it goes away on its own without the need for any intervention or ear infection treatment. But however mild the infection might be, it can still be uncomfortable or in some cases, extremely painful. There are some simple things you can do to reduce the discomfort of an ear infection while you wait for it to clear up:

  • Place a warm cloth over the affected ear
  • Use an over-over-the-counter pain relief medication (only take the recommended dose)
  • Use prescribed or over-the-counter ear drops to soothe your ears and reduce the inflammation

If you find that there’s no change in your symptoms or you feel they have got worse, you should arrange to see a doctor as soon as possible who may prescribe antibiotics. If after antibiotics there is still no improvement or you have had several ear infections in a short period of time, then surgery may be recommended 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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