What is ear infection?
An inner ear infection otherwise known as acute otitis media is mainly an infection from viruses or bacteria which, most of the times, affects the air-filled space in the middle ear that encloses the tiny vibrating ear bones. The resultant inflammation and fluid buildups in the middle ear usually lead to severe pain.
Most of the ear infections clear up on their own even if you do not use any antibiotic treatment. However, you can manage the condition by taking care of the pain and by putting the condition under watch. Ear infections are common in infants but may sometimes progress to a chronic stage where they discharge pus continually if not properly handled.
This is the infection of the canal of the ear as well as the outer ear. The condition is generally referred to as “Swimmer’s ear” because it is common in people who swim and allow water to get into and soften their external ear. The soft, moist ear becomes susceptible to the growth of microorganisms.
How do ear infections develop?
The Eustachian tubes (a pair of narrow tubes) descend from the middle ears to the back of the throat, usually behind the nasal passages. Their main functions include regulating the pressure of air in the middle ear, draining normal secretions out of the middle ear, and refreshing the air in the ear.
When there is food allergy, upper respiratory tract infection or inflammation of the tubes, there would be excessive secretion of fluid which accumulates in the middle ear making it a convenient environment for the growth of microorganisms. With an infection from bacteria or viruses, other symptoms like swelling and pain set in, usually as a result of increased inflammation.
The incidence of ear infection is higher in children due to the fact that their Eustachian tubes are more horizontal and narrower, making the drainage of fluid more difficult and increasing the possibility of clogging.
When infections develop, they are quickly resolved. But in some instances, it takes a longer time for the infection to go away, thereby leading to a chronic infection. This may eventually result in the rupture of the eardrum and discharge of pus.
Causes of Ear Infections
Ear infections do not just develop on their own accord, they are caused. Some of the causes include:
- Viruses such as respiratory syncytial virus, adenovirus, coronavirus, rhinovirus, and parainfluenza
- Bacteria: These include the Moraxella Catarrhalis, non-typeable Haemophilus Influenzae, and Streptococcus Pneumoniae
- Upper respiratory infections like cold (this can be a coincidence sometimes)
- Infected adenoids. Adenoids are lymph tissues that are situated in the upper portion of the throat.
- Food allergies which lead to chronic mucus that blocks the Eustachian tube
- Production of excessive mucus or saliva during teething in children
Signs and Symptoms
The signs and symptoms of ear infection include the following:
- Mild to severe pain in the ear
- Fever in children
- Difficulty chewing sometimes
- Persistent feeling of pressure in the ear
- Ringing in the ears
- Loss of balance
- Pus-like drainage from the ear if the eardrum ruptures
- Children may be fussy, irritable and have difficulty feeding
- Loss of hearing or difficulty hearing
The symptoms may resolve within a short time or persist. Sometimes, the symptoms may become off and on. Pain is lesser if one ear is infected but more when both ears are involved. Symptoms are more pronounced with acute infections than with the chronic ones.
Are ear Infections Contagious?
There has been some misinformation regarding whether or not ear infections are contagious. Those who peddle such rumors are really not well-informed and do not know the pathophysiology of ear infections. Such unfounded rumors only make the issue of isolation worse for a sufferer who people might keep at arm’s length for fear of being infected.
The good news however, is that, ear infections are not contagious. Even though they are caused by bacteria, viruses and other germs, an infected individual cannot easily spread the disease to another person. The reason is simple. The possibility of having an ear-to-ear contact is remote. Besides, most of the ear infections come as a result of unwholesome practices like poking the ear with dirty or infected materials like cotton buds, match sticks, broom sticks, feathers, pen covers, and the rest.
Fortunately, even the outer ear infections (otitis externa) are also not contagious, though they are close to the ear lobe. The fact that inner ear infections in children usually follow cold does not make them contagious either. These infections normally resolve themselves within a few days to a few weeks. In some cases, you may need antibiotics to get rid of the infections. You shouldn’t have anything to fear, really.
It must be noted however, that a lot of children develop ear infections when they have cold or other forms of viral infections. The ear infections themselves are not contagious but the cold and viral infections are.
Who are at risk?
You can be at a higher risk of having ear infection if :
- Bottle feeding: Breastfed babies are better positioned with their Eustachian tubes open, compared to bottle fed babies who are allowed to lie down while they suck from the bottle. It is advisable to hold the baby while it bottle feeds rather than being allowed to lie down. Lying down with the bottle in the mouth increases the chances of the baby formula or milk draining in the Eustachian tube where it harbors bacteria and gives rise to infection of the inner ear.
- Birth defects: Some congenital abnormalities like cleft palate or Down syndrome are known to contribute greatly to feeding difficulties which eventually lead to ear infection also.
- Upper respiratory tract infection: Most ear infections follow upper respiratory tract infections. Frequent colds which can come from being regularly exposed to groups of children as seen in Day care centers can make the baby susceptible to ear infections.
- Immunosuppressed individual: Any person who suffers from suppression of the immune system is at a higher risk of developing ear infections compared to those who have a stronger immunity. With suppressed immunity, any foreign bodies can easily invade the system and cause an infection. An example of immunosuppressed person is a HIV patient (Person Living With HIV).
- Exposure to air with irritants: When regularly exposed to air with irritants like tobacco smoke (secondary smoker), it can also make one vulnerable to ear infections.
- Eustachian tube problems: Problems of the Eustachian tube such as inflammation, blockage or malformation will also increase the chances of developing ear infections.
- Allergies can easily lead to swelling and one or both Eustachian tubes being blocked.
- Altitude changes: A change in altitude as experienced by mountain climbers can lead to increased pressure in the inner ear as well as heighten the chances of having ear infections.
- Pacifier use: The use of pacifiers by babies increases the chances of ear infection. It either happens the same way bottle feeding causes infection, by swallowing a lot of saliva while lying and sucking the pacifier or it can introduce throat infection which can spread to the inner ear.
- Recent illness or ear infection: Being down with an illness in recent time could heighten the possibility of an ear infection. If you have had an ear infection in the past, it increases the chances of being re-infected, especially if there was any form of eardrum perforation.
- Swimmers: Those who swim regularly are also at the risk of exposing their outer ears to microorganisms that can lead to infections of the outer ears otherwise known as otitis externa. The risk increases when the water is untreated, such as ponds, rivers, etc.
The following are the ways to prevent ear infections:
- Wash your hands regularly
- Make sure the child’s immunizations are up-to-date
- Avoid highly crowded areas
- Avoid bottle feeding. Breastfeed your baby instead
- Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
- Do not use pacifiers for your infants and small children
- Treat upper respiratory infections promptly
- Withdraw foods that trigger allergic reactions or give them to the child with caution
- Do not poke or prick your ears with unsterilized materials. They are the easiest ways to introduce infections into the ears.
Ear infections that are mild and uncomplicated usually clear up as soon as possible even if you do not administer any special treatment. However, you can do any of the following to alleviate the symptoms of mild ear infection:
- Apply warm compresses to the ear
- Use Non-Steroidal Anti-Inflammatory Drugs (NSAIDs) such as Diclofenac or Ibuprofen purchased over-the-counter to control the pain and inflammation.
- Use over-the-counter decongestants like pseudoephedrine
- Use over-the-counter eardrops for pain control. You can also use prescription eardrops as well.
This can be prescribed by your doctor if the infection fails to clear off or if the problem becomes a chronic one. The doctor may also prescribe antibiotics treatment for a child under the age of 2 if he/she has ear infection. For the antibiotics to be effective, it has to be taken according to the doctor’s prescription and be sure that the course of treatment is completed.
If the normal antibiotics treatment fails to eradicate the ear infection, surgery may be advocated by the doctor. Surgery might also be needed if you have suffered several ear infections over a short period. The surgery involves placing tubes in the ears to drain out the fluid. The adenoids may be removed if they are enlarged.
How long do ear infections last?
The majority of ear infections is mild and so might not require the use of antibiotics before they get better. In such a case, the problem takes a few days to a few weeks to completely abate. But sometimes, the infection recurs in the future. Those conditions that go away within a short period are referred to acute ear infections.
However, some infections of the inner ear may linger for several months to several years. When that happens, the situation is referred to as chronic ear infection. Chronic conditions may manifest with damage to the eardrum with pussy/purulent, offensive discharge from the ears. Prolonged infections can lead to loss of hearing and speech deformity.
Ear infections are caused by different factors. While the mild ones are easily resolved without any major challenge or damage, prolonged or chronic ear infections can cause a considerable damage to the eardrum, leading to hearing loss and offensive discharge.
Following the suggestions we listed in this post can help to minimize the possible damage this problem could cause. However, if the measures fail to address your problem, then it is time to see your doctor for further management and possibly for a surgery.
Remember that the success of antibiotics treatment depends on your faithfulness in taking your prescribed medications.
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