Ear infection health facts
- An ear infection is a bacterial or viral infection that causes inflammation of the middle ear, resulting in the area becoming blocked with fluids.
- Symptoms of an ear infection (also called acute otitis media) include ear pain, muffled hearing, fluid discharge and nausea.
- Children are most susceptible to ear infection, with approximately 80% having an ear infection every year. This is one of the primary reasons a parent brings a child to us for evaluation.
- People can most often address symptoms with home remedies for an ear infection, such as over-the-counter (OTC) medications and cold or warm compresses.
- However, a person suffering from an earache should seek our help when a fever over 100.4 degrees is present, symptoms are frequent and severe, if a child’s symptoms do not improve, and if a child 6 months or younger has symptoms.
Jump to a topic:
- What is an ear infection?
- What causes ear infections?
- Types of ear infection
- Ear infection symptoms
- When to see a primary care provider for an ear infection
- Ear infection treatments
- Home remedies for an ear infection and earache
What is an ear infection (acute otitis media)?
An ear infection is usually a bacterial or viral infection that causes inflammation of the middle ear, resulting in the area becoming blocked with fluids. An earache or ear pain is discomfort caused by the ear infection.
What causes ear infections?
An ear infection may result from an illness that causes swelling and congestion in the nasal passage, throat and Eustachian tubes:
- Eustachian tubes are canals connecting the middle ear to the upper throat and the back of the nasal cavity.
- They control the pressure within the middle ear and are responsible for draining normally occurring fluids.
- When fluids become trapped in the middle ear, it creates a breeding ground for infections.
Ear infection in children
According to the American Academy of Family Physicians, roughly 80% of children will have an ear infection each year. It is one of the main reasons parents bring their children in to see a provider at HealthFit Family Medicine.
Young children are at high risk for ear infections because their eustachian tubes (see above) are short and narrow, which makes them prone to being clogged by fluid. Also, the immune system of children isn’t well developed, so their bodies don’t fight off infection as easily as adults.
Other factors contributing to ear infections in children are bottle feeding of infants, pacifier use, exposure to cigarette smoke, illness, and altitude and climate changes.
Types of ear infection
We distinguish three types of inner ear infections. Symptoms may vary due to the type of infection, as do our treatments.
Acute otitis media is the most common type and occurs in the middle ear causing infection, swelling and trapped fluid. This infection usually causes an earache and can cause fever in a child.
Otitis media with effusion is when fluid stays trapped in the ear after an ear infection has cleared. Our provider can detect the fluid trapped behind the eardrum with a special instrument.
Chronic otitis media with effusion is when fluid stays in the ear a long time, or when it keeps coming back even though there is no infection. In children this can affect their hearing and make them prone to getting other infections.
Infections of the outer ear can also lead to inner ear infections, usually when the skin in the outer ear canal is irritated. Things that can cause outer ear infections include swimming (swimmer’s ear), sticking cotton swabs or fingers in the ear, and wearing headphones or hearing aids that damage the skin.
Ear infection symptoms
Because the eustachian tubes are unable to open, symptoms include pressure or pain in the inner ear.
Symptoms in adults are generally an earache, sharp ear pain with warm fluid drainage, muffled hearing, feeling of fullness in the ear and nausea.
Symptoms of ear infections in children include:
- Pulling on the ear.
- Fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher.
- A sense of fullness in the ear.
- Poor appetite.
- Abnormal crying.
- Difficulty hearing (may not respond to some sounds).
- Faulty balance.
Patients can help ease these symptoms on their own (see home remedies), but may need to seek treatment from a medical professional.
When to see a primary care provider for an ear infection
Symptoms may occur in one or both ears and be consistent or come and go. Seek medical attention immediately in the following cases.
- Experiencing symptoms with a fever of 100.4 degrees or higher.
- Frequently experiencing symptoms.
- Having hearing problems.
- A child 6 months or younger experiencing symptoms.
- A child has severe ear pain and symptoms don’t improve.
- A child who is lethargic and unresponsive.
- A child with a stiff neck.
Ear infection treatments
The providers at HealthFit see a lot of patients for ear pain and earaches for experienced diagnosis and proper treatment. The first thing we do is to talk about symptoms with the person, including a parent if the patient is a child, and then perform an exam.
The provider will use a lighted otoscope to look into the ear. He or she may also use a pneumatic otoscope, which blows a puff of air against the eardrum. If the eardrum doesn’t move as it usually would, that means there is fluid behind the ear, indicating an ear infection.
We offer the following ear infection treatments.
Since ear infections often clear up on their own in a couple of weeks, we may take a wait-and-see approach for a week or two. During this time the patient or parent should keep us informed of any developments.
Our provider may recommend OTC meds for pain management. We’ll also counsel the patient on simple remedies they can try at home.
Anesthetic drops are an OTC product that can reduce pain, swelling and congestion in the ear. It can also help remove ear wax, which can sometimes contribute to earache.
Antibiotics for ear infection
We generally prescribe antibiotics for children in certain circumstances to reduce more severe and worrisome symptoms. Most often we will try antibiotics after a monitoring period. But in some instances, we will begin them immediately. For example, we may start antibiotics right away for children less than 6 months old with confirmed acute otitis media.
Using antibiotics too often can reduce their effectiveness for a child, so we take this step after weighing the benefits and risks with the parent.
Complications from an untreated ear infection
Most ear infections don’t cause complications in the long run, but ear infections that keep coming back can. Recurring ear infections can lead to poor hearing, infection spreading to other areas of the body and a torn eardrum.
In toddlers and infants, complications can also cause long-term effects such as difficulties in speech, social and other skills development.
Home remedies for an ear infection and earache
Children and adults often respond well to home remedies to treat or lessen ear infection symptoms. We recommend trying the following.
- Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen (Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol).
- Naturopathic ear drops, made from herbs, which can be just as effective as OTC ear drop products.
- Warm and cold compresses against the ear to reduce pain.
- Sleeping with the affected ear off of the pillow, or with the head elevated by an additional pillow, to help the ears drain and remove pressure caused by lying on the pillow.
- Neck exercises to remove pressure in the ear canals.
- Hydrogen peroxide drops in the ear, then draining the ear out and cleaning the ear with distilled water.
- Chewing gum to help relieve the pressure.