Slideshow Pictures: Anatomy of an Ear Infection
Reviewed by Kathy Empen, MD on Friday, September 02, 2011
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Swimmer's ear is an infection of the ear canal. It can occur when water or debris gets trapped in the ear canal. Bacteria breed in the water and cause pain, swelling, and itching of the outer ear. Although it's often associated with swimming, anyone can get swimmer's ear. Breaks in the skin of the ear canal, such as from scratching or using cotton swabs, can also increase risk for infection. The condition is usually treated with medicated ear drops and keeping the ear dry.
Ear Infections: All Too Common
Kids don't have to be in the pool to get ear infections. Ear infections are extremely common, especially in runny-nosed kids. The latest research indicates that when young children get colds, they end up with an ear infection 61% of the time. Keep reading to find out why.
Diagnosing an Ear Infection
Doctors usually diagnose an ear infection by examining the ear and the eardrum with a device called an otoscope. A healthy eardrum (shown here) appears translucent and pinkish-gray. An infected eardrum looks red and swollen.
Anatomy of an Inner Ear Infection
The Eustachian tube is a canal that connects the middle ear to the throat. It is lined with mucus, just like the nose and throat; it helps clear fluid out of the middle ear and maintain pressure levels in the ear. Colds, flu, and allergies can irritate the Eustachian tube and cause the lining of this passageway to become swollen.
Fluid in the Ear
If the Eustachian tube becomes blocked, fluid builds up in the middle ear. This creates a haven for bacteria and viruses, which can cause infection. Doctors can detect fluid in the middle ear with a pneumatic otoscope. This device blows a small amount of air at the eardrum, making the eardrum vibrate. If fluid is present, the eardrum will not move as much as it should.
When too much fluid or pressure builds up in the middle ear, it can put pressure on the eardrum until it ruptures (shown here). Signs of a ruptured eardrum include yellow, brown, or white fluid draining from the ear. Pain may disappear suddenly because the pressure of the fluid on the eardrum is gone. Although a ruptured eardrum sounds frightening, it usually heals itself in a couple of weeks. Unless it happens repeatedly, ruptures have no permanent effect on hearing.
Ear Infection Symptoms
The hallmark of an acute ear infection is piercing pain in the ear. The pain may be worse when lying down, making it difficult to sleep. Other symptoms include:
- Trouble hearing
- Fluid drainage from ears
Ear Infection Symptoms: Babies
It can be tricky to identify an ear infection in babies or children who are too young to tell you where it hurts. Signs to watch for are tugging or pulling on an ear, crankiness, trouble sleeping, and loss of appetite. Babies may push their bottles away because pressure in the middle ear makes it painful to swallow.
Home Care for Ear Infections
Although the immune system puts up its fight, you can take steps to ease the pain of an ear infection. Applying a warm washcloth can be soothing. Ear drops provide rapid pain relief, but check with your doctor before using them. Over-the-counter painkillers and fever reducers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, are also an option. DO NOT give aspirin to children.
Antibiotics for Ear Infections
Antibiotics can help a bacterial ear infection, but in most cases, children's immune systems can fight off the infection without help. In one study, parents were asked not to give their child antibiotics (just treat the pain) unless the infection was "not better, or worse" after 48 hours. The delay resulted in far fewer kids taking antibiotics.
Complications of Ear infections
If an ear infection doesn't improve on its own after a couple days, medical treatment is essential. Left untreated, severe and recurrent middle ear infections can have long-term complications. These include scarring of the eardrum with hearing loss, speech and language developmental problems, and meningitis. A hearing test may be needed if you child suffers from frequent ear infections.
If your child has recurrent ear infections or fluid that just won’t go away, hearing loss and a delay in speech may be a real concern. One solution is for your doctor to insert small tubes through the eardrum. Ear tubes let fluid drain out of the middle ear and prevent fluid from building back up. This can decrease pressure and pain, while restoring hearing. The tubes are usually left in for 8 to 18 months and most often fall out on their own.
Surgery to Remove the Adenoids
Adenoids are glands located high in the back of the throat. They can become enlarged and can affect the Eustachian tubes that connect the middle ears and the back of the throat. An adenoidectomy (removal of the adenoids) may be done when chronic or recurring ear infections continue despite antibiotic treatment or when enlarged glands cause a blockage that impairs breathing.
Preventing Ear Infections
The biggest cause of ear infections is the common cold, so one strategy for prevention is to keep cold viruses at bay. The most effective way to do this is frequent and meticulous hand washing. Other lines of defense against ear infections include avoiding secondhand smoke, vaccinating your children, and breastfeeding your baby for at least six months.
Allergies and Ear Infections
Like colds, allergies can irritate the Eustachian tubes and contribute to middle ear infections. Getting allergies under control can help reduce the risk of ear infections.
More Reading on Ear Infections