A middle ear infection (also called acute otitis media) occurs in the middle ear, which is the air-filled space behind the eardrum. Acute otitis media occurs when fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear and becomes infected, causing pain, inflammation, and pus.
Fluid can become trapped in the middle ear without being infected and causing pain. This condition is called otitis media with effusion. Ear infections most commonly affect children, but can affect people of all ages.
What Causes Ear Infections?
The majority of middle ear infections are viral or bacterialand usually occur after a cold or upper respiratory infection. These conditions cause swelling of the Eustachian tube, a small canal that connects the middle ear to the back of the nose. A swollen eustachian tube can become blocked, causing fluid to become trapped in the middle ear and become infected.
Why Do Children Get Ear Infections so Frequently?
Because the Eustachian tube is smaller, shorter, and more horizontal in children, it is more prone to swelling.
What Are the Symptoms of an Ear Infection?
Symptoms include ear pain and ear fullness. These may be accompanied by a low-grade fever, drainage from the ear, and hearing loss. Infants are often fussier than usual, and may cry inconsolably, refuse to eat and have trouble sleeping. They may also pull or tug on their ears.
Should You See a Doctor?
The sooner an acute ear infection is treated, the lower the chances of it developing into a chronic condition. See a doctor if:
- You experience fluid discharge, bloody fluid, or pus from your ear.
- Symptoms of an ear infection last longer than a day.
- You are in extreme pain.
- Your child shows symptoms and is under 6 months of age.
- Your toddler or infant shows symptoms following an upper respiratory infection or cold.
Can an Ear Infection Cause Complications?
If left untreated, ear infections can lead to a variety of complications including hearing loss, damage to the bones in the middle ear, balance problems, a middle ear cyst called a cholesteatoma, facial paralysis and inflammation of the brain. For these reasons, early detection and treatment are crucial.
An Untreated Infection Can Lead to Mastoiditis.
In addition to pain and discomfort, a middle ear infection can cause tiny air cells in the mastoid bone (the bone behind the ear that has a honeycomb-like structure) to fill up with pus. This is called mastoiditis. As the infection spreads, potentially reaching the brain, the bone is destroyed, resulting in hearing loss. If antibiotics are unsuccessful in clearing up the infection, then mastoid surgery may be needed.
What Are the Symptoms of Mastoiditis?
Symptoms of mastoiditis include swelling, redness, and tenderness of the area behind the ear as well as drainage of fluid from the ear, fever, irritability and lethargy.
How Is Mastoiditis Treated?
Many cases of mastoiditis are treated successfully with antibiotics. Chronic cases may require frequent visits for thorough ear cleanings. When antibiotics fail to treat the problem adequately, or it recurs frequently, a mastoid surgery, or mastoidectomy may be necessary.
How Are Ear Infections Treated?
OTC or Prescription Medication Options
Treating an ear infection begins at home. To help soothe symptoms, gently press a warm washcloth against the affected ear. Over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve pain. Avoid aspirin in children, which can be dangerous and lead to a condition called Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious condition that can lead to liver and brain damage.
Up to 80% of ear infections may go away without antibiotics.
Your doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat a chronic ear infection. Antibiotics should always be taken until used up, even if you or your child’s symptoms appear to be improving; otherwise, the infection could worsen.
Surgery for Chronic Infections
When medication is not effective, a surgical solution involving ear tubes may be considered. These are inserted in the ear drum and provide ventilation to the middle ear, which can help prevent infection. Most ear tubes remain in place anywhere from six to 18 months and eventually fall out on their own.
Call River ENT at (512) 677-6368 for more information or to schedule an appointment.