According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), three in four children will have at least one ear infection by the age of three. Although ear infections are more common in children, adults are also vulnerable to these infections. While childhood infections are mostly minor and pass quickly, adult infections are often an indication of an underlying serious health condition. At Regional ENT Associates in Gallatin, TN, we diagnose and treat all types of ear infections.
Types and Symptoms of Ear Infections
There are three main types of ear infections, all classified according to where they occur in relation to the three main parts of the ear: inner, middle, and outer.
Inner Ear Infection
Inflammation in the inner part of the ear is sometimes misdiagnosed as an inner ear infection. Symptoms of an inner ear infection include:
- Ear pain
Constant problems in the inner ear can be a sign of a more serious health condition, such as meningitis.
Middle Ear Infection
Medical experts define the middle ear as the area right behind the eardrum. Also known as otitis media, a middle ear infection occurs when fluid is trapped behind the eardrum, causing it to bulge. Symptoms of a middle ear infection include:
- Ear pain
- A sense of fullness in the ear
- Fluid leakage from the affected ear
Some people experience a fever, while others report hearing problems until the infections start to clear.
Outer Ear Infection
Medical experts define the outer ear as the part of the ear that extends from your eardrum to the outside of the head. Also known as Otitis externa, an outer ear infection often starts as an itchy rash. Additionally, you might notice that your ear is:
Bacteria is the primary cause of ear infections. However, whether you develop a middle or outer ear infection depends on the cause of the infection.
Middle Ear Infection
A cold or another respiratory problem often causes a middle ear infection. The infection spreads from the respiratory system to one or both ears through the eustachian tubes. Eustachian tubes are responsible for regulating air pressure inside the ear. They are also connected to the throat and the back of the nose.
A middle ear infection can irritate the eustachian tubes, causing them to swell. Swelling in these tubes makes it difficult for them to drain properly. When there is no outlet for the fluid, it builds up against the eardrum, giving you a sense of fullness, among other symptoms.
Outer Ear Infection
Also known as swimmer’s ear, an outer ear infection often occurs when water remains in the ear after bathing or swimming. The moisture left behind creates a conducive environment for bacteria to grow. A bacterial infection can occur if your outer ear is scratched or if there is an irritation in the outer lining of the ear. Irritation can happen when you insert your fingers or other objects in your ear.
Children are more susceptible to ear problems than adults because their eustachian tubes are more horizontal and smaller. Adults with small eustachian tubes and those whose tubes lack a more developed slope are more vulnerable to an ear infection. Adults who smoke and those exposed to second-hand smoke regularly are also at a higher risk of developing an ear infection. People who struggle with seasonal allergies or year-round allergies are also more susceptible to ear problems. You are also at a higher risk of infection when you develop a cold or an upper respiratory infection.
When to See a Doctor
If an earache is the only symptom you are experiencing, you can wait a day or two before visiting a doctor. An ear infection may resolve on its own within a few days. However, it is advisable to see a doctor as soon as possible when the pain persists and you start developing a fever. You should also seek immediate medical attention if fluid is draining from your ear or you develop hearing problems.
Once you visit a doctor, they will review your medical history and ask you to describe your symptoms in detail. The doctor will examine your outer ear and your eardrum using an otoscope. Also known as an auriscope, an otoscope is a hand-held medical device that consists of a head and a handle. The head houses a simple low-power magnifying lens and a light source.
To see inside the ear canal, the doctor looks through the lens at the rear of the otoscope. A pneumatic otoscope contains a bulb that can push air through the speculum into the ear. Once a pneumatic otoscope pushes air against your eardrum, your eardrum reacts in a certain way, helping the doctor make a diagnosis.
If your eardrum moves easily after being pushed with air, it is a possible sign that you do not have a middle ear infection or the infection is not severe. However, if your eardrum barely moves when pushed with air, it is an indication there is fluid pressing against it from the inside.
Additionally, a doctor may carry out a tympanometry test to diagnose and evaluate a possible ear infection. Through a tympanometry test, a doctor can determine whether your ear is working properly. A doctor can also carry out a simple hearing test if they think the infection has caused some hearing problems.
The type of treatment you will receive depends on the type of ear infection you have. Typically, a doctor will prescribe antibiotics if you have a middle or outer ear infection.
Treatment for a Middle Ear Infection
The doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to help you fight a middle ear infection. Depending on the type of antibiotics you receive, you can take them orally, or you can apply them directly on the site of the infection using ear drops. The doctor might also recommend pain medications, such as over-the-counter anti-inflammatory drugs and pain relievers, to help you manage the symptoms. They might also suggest nasal steroids, a decongestant, or an antihistamine to people suffering from a cold or allergy symptoms.
Additionally, a health professional can teach you autoinsufflation, a simple technique to help you clear your eustachian tubes. To perform an autoinsufflation, squeeze your nose, close your mouth, and exhale very gently. This sends air through the eustachian tubes, helping to drain them.
Treatment for an Outer Ear Infection
Before starting treatment for an outer ear infection, the ear should first be cleaned carefully by a health professional. After cleaning, they will apply anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial medications on the ear. If the doctor determines that the infection is bacterial, they may prescribe antibiotics to help you combat the infection.
If a virus is the cause of the infection in your outer ear, the doctor will recommend tending to the irritation and ask you to wait for the infection to resolve itself. They can also suggest more specialized treatment depending on the type of viral infection you have.
You can avoid getting an ear infection of any kind with these tips:
- Clean your ears regularly by using a cotton swab carefully and by washing them
- Ensure you dry your ears thoroughly after taking a shower or swimming
- Do not smoke, and avoid smokers as much as you can
- Wash your hands thoroughly with running water and soap
- Avoid people suffering from colds and other upper respiratory infections
- Always ensure your vaccines are up to date
- Manage your allergies by keeping up with allergy medications and avoiding triggers
Tips to Remove Water From Your Ear Canal
The following at-home remedies can help you prevent swimmer’s ear:
Jiggle Your Earlobe
To shake the water out of your ear, gently jiggle or tug your earlobe while moving your head down towards your shoulder. You can also get water out of your ear by shaking your head side to side while in the same position.
While lying on your side, place a towel under your head and maintain this position for a few minutes. Gravity may slowly drain water from your ear onto the waiting towel.
Create a Vacuum
Tilt your head to the side, and create a tight seal by resting your ear onto your cupped palm. To create a vacuum, gently push your flattened palm towards your ear and cup it as you pull away. Repeat this back and forth in a rapid motion, then tilt your head downwards to allow the water to come out.
When on its lowest setting, a dryer can help evaporate the water trapped inside your ear canal. While holding the dryer about a foot away from your ear and tugging down on your earlobe, move it in a back-and-forth motion to blow warm air into your ear.
Besides repelling water out, olive oil can also help prevent an ear infection. Pour warm olive oil in a small bowl and insert a few drops in the affected ear using a clean dropper. To drain the water and the olive oil out, lie on the other side for around 10 minutes, then sit up and tilt the ear downwards.
While this method might seem a little ironic, it is an effective way to drain water out of the ear. While lying on your side, use a clean dropper to fill the affected ear with water. Maintain this position for about five seconds, then turn over and tilt the affected ear downwards. All of the water should come out.
Yawn or Chew
Sometimes all you have to do to drain the water trapped inside your eustachian tubes is to open the tubes. You can easily do this by moving your mouth. Chewing gum or yawning can relieve tension in your eustachian tubes.
Warm steam can drain the water trapped in your middle ear through the Eustachian tubes. You can take a hot shower or use a large bowl filled with steaming hot water. Hold your face over the bowl and cover your head with a towel to keep the steam in. While inhaling the vapor, maintain this position for five to 10 minutes. Then tilt your head to the side to drain out the water.
While an ear infection in children is not a serious cause for concern, an ear infection in adults should not be taken lightly. It could be a sign of an underlying health complication. It can also cause a lot of discomfort, affecting your overall wellbeing and the quality of your life. Fortunately, an ear infection can be diagnosed and treated easily. To get help for ear infections and other ear problems, contact Regional ENT Associates in Gallatin, TN!