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Middle Ear Infection Explained

little girl examined for a middle ear infection

A middle ear infection, also called otitis media, is a common type of infection that may cause pain in the ear, a high fever, drainage from the infected ear, and more.

Most adults will experience at least one ear infection in their lifetime. Learn about the symptoms of a middle ear infection and its treatments in this article.

What Is A Middle Ear Infection?

young lady suffering from ear infection

The middle ear is a cavity behind the eardrum that connects to the throat.

The Eustachian tube, which connects the back of your mouth with your middle ear, helps you equalize pressure between the outside environment and your inner ear by allowing air to flow in and out.

It’s also responsible for helping you produce mucous when you have a cold or allergies.

Infections involving this area are quite common in children and are usually caused by either viral or bacterial infections.

What Are The Different Types Of Middle Ear Infections?

Middle ear inflammation is a common condition in patients of all ages, usually affecting children between six months and five years old. It can also occur in adults who have had previous ear infections as a child or a teen.

There are two different types of middle ear inflammation: otitis media and otitis external.

Here’s what you need to know about what causes middle ear infection:

  • Otitis Media: This type of middle ear infection occurs when fluid builds up behind the eardrum and causes an infection that leads to pain, hearing loss, and difficulty with speech.
  • Otitis Externa: Also known as swimmer’s ear, this type of inflammation occurs when water gets trapped inside your outer ear canal causing pain or itchiness along with discharge from one or both ears (often yellowish).

What Leads to an Infection in the Middle Ear?

doctor checking women patient for a possible middle ear infection

Middle ear infections can be caused by a variety of things, including:

  • Bacterial or viral infections. These can spread from the throat to the middle ear through saliva, mucus, blood, or other body fluids.
  • Swimming. Swimming in a dirty pool with excessive water pressure causes water to enter the eardrum.
  • Insect bites. Insect bites near the ear canal (such as mosquitoes).
  • Earwax buildup. Earwax buildup and blockage that allows bacteria to grow in moist areas of your ear canal and build up behind your Eustachian tube (connecting your nasal passages and throat with your middle ears).

Does A Middle Ear Infection Hurt?

A middle ear infection can cause a number of symptoms, including:

  • fever
  • ear pain or pressure
  • drainage from the ear (fluid coming out)
  • trouble hearing due to fluid buildup in your middle ear
  • a headache that gets worse when you bend over or lay down

Other symptoms include facial pain, nausea and vomiting (vomiting), loss of appetite, tenderness in your ears, swollen lymph nodes around your neck, difficulty sleeping, and more.

How Do You Diagnose An Ear Infection?

In order to make a diagnosis of an ear infection, your doctor will want to perform a physical examination. The most common way is by examining the outer ear canal with an otoscope.

It’s important that you allow your doctor or nurse practitioner to check out any concerns you may have about your hearing and balance since some infections can cause damage to these senses.

If there are signs of redness or swelling around the opening of your ear canal, then it’s likely that you’re suffering from an ear infection.

In addition, they’ll be listening for any fluid being released from inside the middle ear as well as using a microscope in order to identify whether or not bacteria are present within this area too (a process called culture testing).

lady touching her infected ear

Who Is Most Prone To An Ear Infection?

You’re more likely to develop an ear infection if you’re:

  • A child under the age of five. This is because your middle ear bones aren’t fully formed until about this time and are still susceptible to infection. If a child gets an upper respiratory infection, it can travel down into the middle ear space and cause fluid buildup there.
  • Someone with Down syndrome (or another genetic condition). Heart defects that affect blood flow to the brain may also put children at risk for hearing loss due to repeated infections in their ears.

Middle Ear Infection Treatment

If you have a middle ear infection, you will likely have to use antibiotics. If your doctor prescribes them, take them exactly as they instruct.

You may also need painkillers or even an anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen or naproxen.

Ear drops can help with pain and inflammation; ask for these from your doctor if you don’t already know what kind of drops would be best for your situation.

If you’re experiencing pain and inflammation in your ears, drops can help. Talk to your doctor about how to treat a middle ear infection and which kind of drop would be best for your situation.

Are There Any Consequences to Constant Ear Infections?

woman loss her hearing sense due to ear infection

Repeated or ongoing ear infections can lead to hearing loss, a perforated eardrum, and even a middle ear fluid build-up. This is known as glue ear. Glue ear can also be caused by repeated infections if the symptoms are not treated properly.

Glue ear causes problems for your child by making it difficult for them to hear properly. If left untreated, this condition may cause:

  • Hearing Loss – The fluid in your child’s ears will make it harder for them to hear sounds clearly and give their brain the information needed to understand speech and language properly.
  • Perforation Of The Eardrum – A hole in their eardrum allows bacteria into their middle ear space which causes further damage resulting in permanent hearing loss or balance problems (vertigo).

What Can I Do to Prevent Middle Ear Infection?

Here are some things you can do to prevent ear infections:

  • Clean your ears gently
  • Keep your head upright after swimming, flying, and falling asleep with a pillow overhead.
  • If your child gets an ear infection before he leaves for summer camp or other travel with new people around him, talk to the doctor about using ear drops.

When Should I See A Doctor If I Have An Infection In My Middle Ear?

doctor checking little girl for a ear infection with her mother

If you’ve had an ear infection for more than 10 days, see your doctor. They’ll examine your ears and take swabs from them to test for bacteria or viruses.

They may also order blood tests to look for signs of inflammation or infection in other parts of your body (such as your lungs).

If you have recurrent ear infections (three or more in the past year), see your doctor sooner rather than later — even if the symptoms don’t seem serious at first.

At Kingwood ER, we try to be the finest in the area by providing a comfortable and advanced emergency department with minimal wait times for Kingwood residents.

If you are suffering from unbearable ear pain, The Kingwood Emergency Room provides a new and improved way to address medical emergencies around the clock, 365 days a year.

As soon as you enter our emergency room, we prioritize patients and empower physicians to offer the best possible treatment.

Stay Mindful

A middle ear infection usually isn’t serious. Middle ear infections aren’t contagious and are best treated with antibiotics or other medications.

Watch your child closely to see if a fever develops and call your doctor if symptoms get worse over time.

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