Ear Diseases: Common Causes Of Ear Infections And Preventive Measures
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Otitis media, or ear infections, are prevalent health issues that cause inflammation and infection in the middle ear. These infections usually happen when viruses or bacteria penetrate the space behind the eardrum.
Although they can affect people of all ages, children are more prone to them. Almost all children experience at least one ear infection before they start going to school. However, as children grow, they tend to have fewer ear infections.
What Is An Ear Infection?
Ear infections can take different forms depending on which part of the ear is affected. Two common types of ear infections are otitis media, a middle ear infection, and otitis externa, an infection of the outer ear. Either bacteria or viruses can cause infections.
The middle ear is located just behind the eardrum and is connected to the throat through a short tube called the Eustachian tube. When an individual has a cold, the infection can spread up the Eustachian tube to the middle ear. Since the Eustachian tubes in children and infants are small, middle ear infections are more common in these groups.
The outer ear, also known as the ear canal, can also become infected. This type of infection is often caused by water remaining in the ear canal after swimming, which is why it is sometimes referred to as swimmer’s ear. Outer ear infections can also occur due to damage to the ear canal, such as from using cotton buds.
What Causes Of Ear Infections?
Ear infections occur when bacteria or viruses in fluid get trapped in the ear and multiply, causing an infection. These germs can originate from other illnesses that lead to swelling and congestion in the throat and nasal passages and can take up to a week to manifest as symptoms of an ear infection.
These germs can also result from exposure to water while swimming or bathing. An ear infection is caused by a virus or bacterium in the middle ear, often triggered by an underlying condition such as a cold, flu or allergy that causes swelling and congestion in the eustachian tubes, throat, and nasal passages.
Symptoms Of Ear Infections
The symptoms may vary based on the specific area of the ear that is infected and can include:
- The sensation of discomfort or itching in the ear
- Presence of fever or headache
- Difficulty in hearing or experiencing reduced auditory capacity
- A feeling of congestion or fullness in the ears, sometimes accompanied by ringing or buzzing sounds
- Experiencing dizziness or imbalance
- Nausea or vomiting
- Discharge of fluid from the ear
- Redness or swelling of the ear.
Infants and young children may exhibit the following behaviours:
- Tug or touch their ear
- Experience elevated body temperature (38°C or higher)
- Show signs of redness around the ear
- Display restlessness or irritability
- Fail to respond to sounds that would typically grab their attention.
How To Treat Ear Infections
Middle Ear infections
Middle ear infections, known as otitis media, typically resolve independently within a week. Pain relief medication such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may be required for you or your child. Antibiotics are typically not recommended for middle ear infections unless the child presents with symptoms such as vomiting or fever indicating that they are unwell.
If the child’s symptoms do not improve after 1 to 2 days, they should be taken back to the doctor to re-examine their ears. Children under 2, Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander children, and those with specific medical conditions are at a higher risk of complications from ear infections. They are more likely to be prescribed antibiotics.
Outer Ear Infections
Antibiotic ear drops are commonly used to treat otitis externa, also known as outer ear infections. These drops may contain additional medications like steroids. To administer the drops, it’s recommended that you lie down with the affected ear facing upwards and remain in that position for several minutes to ensure that the drops are fully absorbed.
While the infection is healing, refraining from swimming for at least a week is crucial.
Doctors Don’t Give Antibiotics For Middle Ear Infections. Why?
In most cases, otitis media will resolve spontaneously within four days. Administering antibiotics to children with this condition is not always necessary, as research shows that the average duration of ear pain is only 12 hours less for those who take antibiotics than those who don’t.
However, prescribing antibiotics may lead to adverse side effects, and the overuse of antibiotics may contribute to the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can be problematic in the future. Therefore, physicians do not typically recommend antibiotics for middle ear infections unless there is a risk of complications.
What Other Problems Can Ear Infection Cause?
Middle ear infections can sometimes cause pressure due to fluid buildup, leading to a ruptured or burst eardrum. This can be identified by a yellow discharge from the ear and a sudden decrease in pain.
The eardrum typically repairs itself, and a follow-up appointment with a doctor is recommended after six weeks to ensure proper healing. During recovery, it’s crucial to avoid getting the ear wet to prevent complications.
Glue ear is a condition where some children may experience the persistence of fluid in the middle ear after an infection. This may have an impact on their ability to hear and develop language.
The liquid typically resolves on its own within three months, but if it doesn’t, grommets may be necessary. Grommets are tiny plastic tubes surgically inserted into the eardrum to facilitate fluid drainage from the middle ear. This procedure will be performed by a specialist in ear, nose, and throat (ENT).
How To Prevent Ear Infections
The common cold commonly causes middle ear infections. Although it is difficult to prevent colds, practising good hygiene can help decrease the likelihood of catching one.
It is advisable to keep your child away from cigarette smoke, as exposure can increase the risk of ear infections.
If your child experiences frequent ear infections, the insertion of grommets in their ears may be necessary to prevent recurring infections.
Certain measures can be taken to reduce the risk of an outer ear infection.
- Remove water from your ears or your child’s ears after swimming.
- If you are susceptible to ear infections, consider using earplugs while swimming.
- Avoid inserting any objects, including cotton buds, into the ear, even if there is a sensation of blockage or pain.