Most of us have dealt with an ear infection at some point in our lives. In most cases, especially in kids, ear infections clear up quickly and unless prolonged cause no long term damage. In adults too, most ear infections are the result of a primary infection like a cold or flu and clear up within a few days. However, not all ear infections are minor. Some, like an infection of the mastoid and vestibular infection are serious and if left untreated, they could cause hearing loss.
Ear infection explained
To understand an ear infection, let’s start with the structure of the ear. Medically, the ear is segmented into three parts – the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. The middle ear contains the Eustachian tube which connects to the back of the nose and throat (now you know why there are ENT specialists). The function is to allow air into the middle ear via the nose (which balances the air pressure) and drain mucus through the throat.
When the Eustachian tube in the middle ear gets blocked, there is an accumulation of fluid. This fluid gets infected with bacteria, fungi and virus and causes the ear infection. Such an infection is usually triggered by a cold, flu or allergy that congests the nose and throat and is the most common type of ear infection.
Ear infection in children
Children tend to get middle ear infections much more than adults. According to the Victorian Government’s Better Health Channel, it is estimated that four in five children will get a middle ear infection at least once a year. The simple explanation is that in children the Eustachian tube is horizontal, making it more difficult for fluid to drain. Also, children tend to get the cold and flu more frequently. After all, they do have lower immunity and more exposure at daycare or school. That explains why over 80% of toddlers under 3 have had an ear infection. As they get older, the Eustachian tube naturally slants and the ear infections get less frequent.
In children the symptoms of an ear infection can be quite troubling:
- Irritability and loss of appetite
- Ear-ache or a feeling of fullness in the ear.
- Fever and loss of appetite.
- Lack of balance or mild vertigo.
- Mild deafness or muffled hearing.
- Discharge from the ear.
Discharge from the ear could be due to the ear drum bursting and normally heal on its own.
However, it is best to see your GP if the child complains of discomfort (as they likely will), just to ensure that the infection is not serious. If the infection is caused by a virus, antibiotics are unlikely to help and the infection will clear once the blockage clears and the fluid can drain.
Some steps can be taken to ease the symptoms:
- If the infection is bacterial, antibiotics could help
- Pain relieving medication will help the child get a good rest.
- If there is pus, your GP may recommend ear drops.
More serious ear infections
Not all ear infections are benign or caused just by a blockage of the Eustachian tube. Some other types of ear infections are:
- Infection of the ear canal: This can be caused by aggressive cleaning, exposure to dirty water, etc.
- Inflammation of the ear drum: This is could be either bacterial or viral. The ear drum blisters and can be very painful.
- Infection of the mastoid: This is an infection of the bone directly behind the ear. Symptoms include discharge and intense pain. This can have serious consequences such as deafness and facial paralysis, if untreated.
Infection of the vestibular nerve: Usually a viral infection, this can cause loss of balance, nausea and vomiting. This is because the vestibule is responsible for helping us keep our balance by maintaining our body’s centre of gravity.
Some serious side effects of an ear infection
- Typically, hearing becomes normal after infections clear. But persistent fluid may cause some hearing damage.
- If the auditory problems caused by ear infections remain unresolved it could trigger delays in speech and cause difficulties in learning in the classroom.
- It is important to ensure that the infection remains confined to the ear (especially in the case of infection of the mastoid) and does not spread to nearby organs.
- If an ear drum burst (as it sometimes does to relieve the pressure in the middle ear), it should heal in a few days. If that does not happen, surgery may be required to repair the tear.
Cold, flu, ear infections –they are all a part of growing up. Don’t worry, but stay watchful. At the first sign of serious discomfort, you must see your GP. If it is not serious, the GP will be able to recommend measures to ease symptoms, especially in the case of children. If it does turn out to be serious, you’ll know you’ve acted quickly. So don’t procrastinate seeing your GP.
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Medical information published on this website is of a general nature only and not intended to be a substitute for informed healthcare professional advice or clinical care. If you have specific healthcare concerns or issues you should consult with a qualified health care professional such as your own GP.