Ear infections can occur in both children and adults, usually in the middle ear – the sections of your ear behind the eardrum. However, children are more prone to ear infection risks than adults.
Ear infections are caused by either virus or bacterial infections. These often result in fluid buildup, inflammation, and pain. But most ear infections become better without any treatment.
Below, we take a closer look at the symptoms, causes, diagnosis, and treatment of ear infections.
What are ear infections?
An ear infection is a virus or bacterial infection of the middle ear – an air-filled space located behind the eardrum that uses vibrating bones to convert sound into signals that your brain can understand. An ear infection often causes inflammation and excessive fluid buildup. This increases the pressure on the eardrum causing pain.
Moreover, ear infections are either chronic or acute. Chronic ear infections are more serious as they can permanently damage the inner and middle ear.
Ear infections are primarily of three types.
- Acute otitis media (AOM): This is one of the most common forms of ear infection. In AOM, your middle ear becomes swollen due to infection, with fluid trapped behind the eardrum. You may experience a fever if you have AOM.
- Otitis media with effusion (OME): Also called serous or secretory otitis media, OME infection occurs when non-infected fluid collects in the middle-ear space. Liquid can collect as a result of a sore throat, cold, or upper respiratory infection. However, you may not experience any symptoms.
- Chronic otitis media with effusion (COME): This form of ear infection occurs when fluid stays in the ear for extended periods or keeps returning. COME infections often reduce your ability to fight new ear infections. As a result, you can face hearing difficulties.
Signs and symptoms
The symptoms of ear infections differ in adults and children. However, earache is common in both. Symptoms can persist or recur from time to time. The symptoms of chronic ear infections are more noticeable than acute ear infections.
For adults, ear infections are super painful, often dull, sharp, or burning. They can experience a constant pressure, reduced hearing, or fluid drainage from the ear. Other symptoms can include dizziness and vertigo.
As for children, ear infection symptoms can vary a lot. Children may experience:
- Lack of appetite
- Loss of balance
- Pus-like ear drainage
- Ear tugging
- Sleeping difficulties
- Irritability or fussiness
If children younger than 6 months experience fever or ear infection symptoms, consult a doctor immediately. Also, if your child has severe ear pain or fever above 39 degrees Celsius for more than 24 hours.
Causes of ear infection
An ear infection often results from the flu, colds, or allergic reactions as they cause swelling and congestion in the neck and throat. In fact, ear infections are more common in the fall or winter season when these illnesses upsurge. As the increased mucus in the sinuses blocks the eustachian tubes.
Anatomically speaking, eustachian tubes are small tubes that connect the middle ear to the nasal passage in the back of the throat. If eustachian tubes are blocked, they become swollen and inflamed. This causes fluids to buildup in the ear and put pressure on the eardrum.
Additionally, eustachian tubes can become swollen because of inflamed adenoids – they are pads of tissues located at the start of the eustachian tubes and the back of the nasal cavity. Adenoids can trap passing bacteria or viruses and cause an ear infection.
Ear infections can be diagnosed with symptoms alone. However, to make sure, your doctor will examine your ear using an otoscope – an instrument with an attached light and magnifying glass. An otoscope can help the doctor to find:
- If the eardrum appears swollen or red
- Pus-like fluid buildup behind the eardrum
- A perforation in the eardrum
- A bulging or collapsed eardrum
In addition, your doctor may use a tool called pneumatic otoscope to blow air at the eardrum. This is done to check if your eardrum can move properly. If not, there may be fluid buildup in the eardrum which is preventing its normal movements.
And if your ear infection has advanced, your doctor may sample the fluid inside your ear to perform follow-up tests.
Most mild ear infections usually clear up without any treatment. As a result, the focus of ear infection treatments is on the pain management. Medicines like eardrops, ibuprofen, or acetaminophen are used to control the earache and fever. However, your doctor can also recommend antibiotics if the symptoms are prolonged or severe.
Infants below the age of 6 months often need antibiotic treatment to curb the infection spread. As for children older than 2 years, doctors usually avoid antibiotics as the overuse of antibiotics can cause antibiotic resistance. Following this, it becomes difficult to treat serious ear infections.
However, if the medical treatments are not effective or you have large adenoids, you may need surgery to clear the fluid buildup.