Slideshow Pictures: Anatomy of an Ear Infection - Causes, Diagnosis, and Treatment
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Ear Infections Are Common
It may seem like kids are always getting ear infections, but it’s really true. Ear infections are very common in kids. Children get ear infections about two out of every three times they have a cold. Children are more prone to ear infections because their small ears do not drain fluid as well as adult ears do. Kids’ immune systems are also immature, and this increases the likelihood of certain infections.
An infection of the ear canal (the outer ear) is sometimes referred to as swimmer’s ear. The name comes from the fact that it most often occurs when the ear canal stays wet long enough for bacteria or other organisms to grow. Scratches or injuries from cotton swabs or other objects inserted into the ear can also be the start of an ear infection. Signs of an outer ear infection include itching or soreness of the ear when touched.
Ear Infection Diagnosis
The diagnosis of an ear infection is made by examining the inside of the ear with an instrument called an otoscope. A normal, healthy eardrum has a pinkish-gray color as shown here. The healthy eardrum is clear, while an infected eardrum is bulging (swollen) and reddened.
The Inside of Your Ear
The Eustachian tube is the canal that connects your middle ear to your throat. When the Eustachian tube is open as it is normally, it prevents fluid and air pressure from building up inside the ear. Infections like colds, the flu, or allergic reactions can cause the Eustachian tube to become swollen and blocked.
Fluid Inside the Ear
When the Eustachian tube is blocked, there is a buildup of fluid inside the middle ear. This fluid is an ideal environment for bacteria and viruses to grow, causing infections. The otoscope can blow a tiny puff of air against the eardrum to see if it vibrates normally. When there is fluid present in the middle ear, the eardrum does not vibrate normally.
When the pressure from fluid buildup is too high inside the middle ear, the eardrum can rupture, as shown here. When the eardrum bursts, brown, yellow, or whitish fluid can drain from the ear. The eardrum usually heals without medical treatment within a few weeks after a rupture, and hearing is typically not worsened unless it continues to occur frequently over a period of time. Sometimes when the eardrum bursts, the pain suddenly resolves since the pressure is relieved.
Symptoms of an Ear Infection
Ear pain is the main sign of ear infection in children. Kids with ear infection may have trouble sleeping because of the pain. Other symptoms can include discharge or fluid coming from the ears, fever, problems with hearing, dizziness, or nasal congestion.
Ear Infection Symptoms: Babies
Ear infections aren’t always apparent in babies and children that are too young to describe their pain. They may signify ear pain by pulling on or fussing with their ear. Or they may just be irritable, or not eating or sleeping well. Babies sometimes refuse to drink from a bottle because swallowing hurts their ears.
Ear Infection Home Care
There are some home care measures you can take to help your child’s ear pain. Ear drops can bring relief, but these should not be used without checking with your doctor first. Warm washcloths applied to the outside of the ear may be helpful. Over-the-counter (OTC) pain and fever medications such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen may be used, but you should never give aspirin to children.
Antibiotics to Treat Ear Infections
Sometimes ear infections resolve without any specific treatment. Some ear infections are caused by viruses, and antibiotics are only effective against bacterial infections, not viral infections. So it is possible that your doctor may not want to prescribe antibiotics right away. Your doctor will decide if and when antibiotics should be used in a given case.
Ear Infection Complications
Repeated ear infections can lead to scarring of the eardrums. Over time, this can cause hearing and speech problems. Your doctor may recommend having your child’s hearing tested if he or she has frequent ear infections.
Tympanostomy tubes are small tubes that are sometimes inserted in the eardrums of children who have frequent ear infections. This image shows an ear tube positioned in the eardrum. The tubes allow drainage of fluid so that fluid cannot buildup in the middle ear. This can lessen the chance of infection and reduce the pain that may be associated with pressure. Ear tubes usually fall out on their own after a number of months.
Could Swollen Tonsils Be The Cause?
Enlarged tonsils can sometimes put pressure on the Eustachian tubes, preventing them from draining fluid out of the ear. This can lead to ear infections. Sometimes, doctors recommend tonsillectomy for children who have very large tonsils and frequent ear infections.
Ear Infection Prevention
The common cold is the main cause of middle ear infections in children, so by preventing colds, you’re also taking steps to prevent ear infections. Thorough handwashing is the best way to prevent colds. Other preventive measures against infection include avoiding secondhand smoke, receiving the annual seasonal flu vaccine, and breastfeeding babies for at least 6 months to enhance the immune system.
Ear Infections and Allergies
Allergies can also cause inflammation and contribute to ear infections. Allergy testing can identify the allergen triggers for your child. Medications or allergy shots usually can bring relief and also lessen the likelihood of ear infections.
More Reading on Ear Infections