Ear infections are a common problem for both children and adults. In fact, they are one of the most commonly treated conditions by doctors in the United States. There are many different types of ear infections, and various things can cause them. This blog post will discuss the causes, symptoms, and treatment options for ear infections in adults.
- Ear infections overview
- Causes of ear infections
- Types and symptoms of ear infection
- Ear infection Diagnosis
- Ear infection Treatment
- What you can do At Home
- When to Call a Doctor
Ear infections: Overview
Although ear infections are more prevalent in children than adults, adults are susceptible to them. Adult ear infections are typical symptoms of a more significant health condition than children’s ear infections, which are generally simple and disappear rapidly.
If you’re an adult with an ear infection, pay attention to your symptoms and contact your doctor as soon as possible.
The ear is made up of three parts.
- The outer ear includes the part you can see and the canal that leads to the eardrum.
- The eardrum separates the middle ear from the outer ear and contains tiny bones that amplify sound.
- The inner ear is where sounds are translated into electrical impulses and sent to the brain.
Any of these three parts can become infected by bacteria, fungi, or viruses.
Causes of ear infections
Ear infections can be caused by various things, including bacteria, fungi, and viruses. The most common causes are bacteria and viruses, and ear infections can develop when these organisms spread to the ear.
The ear is susceptible to infection because it is a moist, warm environment perfect for bacteria and viruses to grow. When these organisms enter the ear, they can cause an ear infection.
Bacterial infections often cause ear infections. But whether you get an outer or middle ear infection depends on how you become infected. Some of the many causes of ear infection and contributing risk factors include:
- upper respiratory tract infections
- sudden changes in air pressure (while riding a plane)
- smaller than average Eustachian tubes, or a blocked Eustachian tube
- cleft palate
- young age – babies and children are more prone to ear infections
- swimming in polluted water
- failing to dry the outer ear properly after swimming or bathing
- overzealous cleaning of the ears, which can scratch the delicate tissues
Types and symptoms of ear infection
Outer ear infections (Otitis externa)
The outer ear extends out from your eardrum to the outside of your head.
An outer ear infection is also known as otitis externa. An outer ear infection often starts as an itchy rash. The ear may become:
Middle ear infections (Otitis media)
The middle ear is the area right behind your eardrum.
A middle ear infection is also known as otitis media. It’s caused by fluid trapped behind the eardrum, which causes the eardrum to bulge. Along with an earache, you may sense fullness in your ear and have some fluid drainage from the affected ear.
Otitis media can come with a fever. Some would even have jaw pain accompanying the ear infection. You may also have trouble hearing until the infection starts to clear.
Acute otitis media
This type of ear infection comes on quickly and is accompanied by swelling and redness in the ear behind and around the eardrum. Fever, ear pain, and hearing impairment often occur due to trapped fluid and/or mucous in the middle ear.
Otitis media with effusion
After an infection goes away, sometimes mucous and fluid will build up in the middle ear. This can cause the ear to feel “full” and affect your ability to hear clearly.
Middle ear infections can cause several different symptoms.
The following are a few of the most common:
- sleeping problems
- tugging or yanking on the ears
- Ear discharge that is yellow, clear, or crimson
- a loss of equilibrium
- difficulties with hearing
- vomiting and nausea
- reduced appetite
Inner ear infections
A condition diagnosed as an inner ear infection may actually be a case of inflammation and not an actual infection. In addition to ear pain, symptoms include:
Inner ear trouble may signify a more serious condition, such as meningitis.
Ear infection Diagnosis
Your doctor will perform a physical examination and ensure that they know your child’s medical history. Using a piece of lighted equipment called an otoscope, your doctor will examine the outer ear and eardrum for redness, swelling, pus, and fluid during the exam.
How is a middle ear infection diagnosed? Your doctor may also do a tympanometry test to see if your middle ear is functioning properly. A device is inserted into the ear canal, which changes the pressure and causes the eardrum to vibrate. The test monitors vibration changes and plots them on a graph. Your doctor will interpret the results.
This type of measurement uses sound waves that bounce sound against the eardrum. The quantity of sound that bounces back shows the extent of fluid accumulation. The bulk of sound is absorbed by a healthy ear, whereas an infected ear reflects more sound waves.
A clinician may employ tympanocentesis if an ear infection has not responded well to therapy. A tiny hole is made in the eardrum, and a small quantity of fluid is drained from the inner ear during this treatment. The infection’s etiology can then be determined using this fluid.
Ear Infection Treatment
Monitoring and observation
Most doctors would not require patients to take any antibiotics during the first few days of the infection. Symptoms of untreated ear infections usually improve within the first couple of days, and most infections clear up on their own within one to two weeks without any treatment.
Your doctor will advise you on treatments to lessen pain from an ear infection. These may include the following:
- Pain medication. Your doctor may advise the use of over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) to relieve pain. Use the drugs as directed on the label. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
- Anesthetic drops. These may be used to relieve pain if the eardrum doesn’t have a hole or tear in it.
If the pain, fever, and other symptoms persist, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to fight the bacteria or fungi that caused your infection. Even after symptoms have improved, be sure to use the antibiotic as directed. Failing to take all the medicine can lead to recurring infection and resistance of bacteria to antibiotic medications. Talk with your doctor or pharmacist about what to do if you accidentally miss a dose.
What you can do at home
If you have ear pain, it’s a good idea to talk with your doctor about it.
There’s little research to say whether or not home care works, but most doctors agree these treatments are safe to try yourself:
- A cool or warm compress. Soak a washcloth in either cool or warm water, wring it out, and then put it over the ear that’s bothering you. Try both temperatures to see if one helps you more than the other.
- A heating pad: Lay your painful ear on a warm, not hot, heating pad.
- Over-the-counter ear drops with pain relievers. If they help at all, it’s only briefly. If your eardrum has a tear or hole, you shouldn’t use these drops, so check with your doctor first.
- Chew gum. If you’re on an airplane or driving at high altitudes and your ear pain is from the change in air pressure, chew some gum. It can help lower that pressure and ease your symptoms.
- Sleep upright. While it may sound strange, resting or sleeping sitting up rather than lying down can encourage fluid in your ear to drain. This could ease pressure and pain in your middle ear. Prop yourself up in bed with a stack of pillows, or sleep in an armchair that’s a bit reclined.
There are many ways to prevent ear infections from happening or flaring up:
- Wash your hands.
- Do not smoke, or stay away from second-hand smoke.
- Clean your ears but do not overdo it.
- Take steps in preventing colds, flu, and other upper respiratory tract illnesses.
When to Call a Doctor
Ear pain generally goes away on its own or with home care in 2 to 3 days. All you need most of the time is a pain reliever and an eye on symptoms that become worse. It’s nevertheless crucial to understand when your discomfort might be a sign of something worse like permanent hearing loss.
Call your doctor if:
- Fluid (such as pus or blood) is leaking from your ear.
- You are feeling feverish, dizzy, or have a headache.
- You think an object is lodged in your ear.
- You see edema (swelling) behind your ear, particularly if the muscles on that side of your face are weak or you can’t move them.
- You’ve had severe ear pain for a long time, and it just stopped (which could indicate an eardrum rupture).
- Your symptoms don’t improve within 24 to 48 hours.