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Ear infections are characterized by an inflammation of the middle, inner or outer ear. An infection is usually caused by bacteria or a virus, but it requires a medical diagnosis to determine. Ear infections can be acute or chronic; acute infections are painful but quick, while chronic infections can be repeated or long-lasting, and can potentially cause permanent damage to the middle and inner ear.

Overall, ear infections are common, with more than three million cases per year in the U.S. While ear infections are generally more common in children than adults, adult ear infections more often indicate a more serious health problem. To that end, adults with ear infections should likely see a doctor.

Ear Infection Causes and Risk Factors

Ear infections caused by a bacteria or virus often result from illnesses such as colds or flu, or allergies. These illnesses cause congestion and inflammation of the throat, nasal passages and Eustachian tubes. Other types of ear problems, such as “swimmer’s ear”, are caused by water trapped in the ear. Those who swim, do water sports or are otherwise exposed to water are also at risk.

Children are at higher risk for ear infections for a number of reasons. Their Eustachian tubes are smaller than adults’ so it’s harder for fluid or mucus to drain from them. Their immune systems are not as effective as those of adults so it’s easier for infections to take hold.

Ear Infection Symptoms

Various types of ear infections can present different symptoms. However, hearing loss is a common symptom among all types. While hearing loss due to an ear infection is usually temporary and subsides following treatment, untreated middle ear infections may cause damage to the ear structures and result in permanent hearing loss. Those who tend to have chronic, or multiple, ear infections are also prone to complications, such as permanent hearing loss.

Middle ear infection

A middle ear infection, or otitis media, affects the sections of the ear right behind the eardrum. Middle ear infection is the most common cause of earaches. Although it is more common in children, middle ear infections can also affect adults.

Common symptoms in adults include:

  • Pain
  • Congestion
  • Fluid drainage from the ear
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Tenderness
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Headache
  • Fever

Inner ear

An inner ear infection may not actually be an infection. More commonly it is an irritation or inflammation which affects the part of the ear that is responsible for balance and hearing. It is a relatively rare condition. In the event that that it is an infection, however, it can be caused by either a virus or bacteria.

Symptoms include:

  • Vertigo
  • Dizziness
  • Hearing loss
  • Balance difficulties
  • Earache
  • Nausea
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ears)

Outer ear

An outer ear infection is an infection located in the outer opening of the ear and the ear canal. One common type of this infection is called “swimmer’s ear.” This is caused by water that remains in the ear after swimming or due to other water exposure. Bacteria or fungus are then prone to grow in this moist environment.

Symptoms include:

  • Pain or discomfort
  • Swelling
  • Redness
  • Warmth
  • Itching
  • Fluid drainage
  • Pus discharge
  • Hearing loss

Ear Infection Diagnosis

Diagnosis of an ear infection is made based on the symptoms a patient describes to the healthcare provider, as well as a physical exam. That exam usually entails the use of an otoscope, a lighted instrument with which the doctor can look at the ears, throat and nasal passage.

Sometimes a healthcare provider will use a pneumatic otoscope to test for infection. This instrument releases a puff of air into the ear which can detect any trapped fluid. Trapped fluid that is behind the eardrum can also be detected as it causes the eardrum to move less than normal.

As for an inner ear infection, however, it can be challenging to diagnose because its symptoms are also common in many other conditions.

If there is doubt about a diagnosis of an ear infection, the healthcare provider may perform other tests, most commonly a tympanometry to measure the movement of the eardrum, and an acoustic reflectometry, which is an indirect measurement of fluids in the middle ear. In rarer instances, a tympanocentesis may be employed, which extracts fluid from the middle ear which is then tested for bacteria or viruses.

Ear Infection Treatment

Most mild ear infections resolve on their own within a short amount of time, and symptoms can be relieved with home remedies; however, some ear infections require prescription antibiotics.

Some self-care for relief of symptoms includes:

  • Applying a warm cloth to the affected ear
  • Over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen
  • Over-the-counter ear drops and/or decongestants

If an ear infection does not improve on its own within three days, or discharge is coming from the ear(s), see a healthcare provider.

Visit Sonora Hearing Care today if you are concerned about hearing loss, from ear infections or other causes, or to book an appointment.