Ear infections, which are also known as acute otitis media, typically occur as a result of either a viral or bacterial infection affecting the middle ear. The middle ear is a space filled with air that exists behind the eardrum. This sensitive area contains tiny bones that vibrate. Although adults can experience ear infections, they are most common in children, especially those who are younger. Ear infections can frequently become painful because they involve buildup of fluids and inflammation within the middle ear. Many people do not realize they have an ear infection until the point where the pain becomes difficult to bear.
Ear infections occur when either a bacterium or viral infection invades the middle ear. The infection typically results from the presence of another type of illness such as a cold, allergies or the flu. These infections often lead to swelling and congestion in the nasal passages, the Eustachian tubes and the throat, which can lead to the development of an ear infection. The Eustachian tubes run from the middle ear to a high point in the back of the throat, which is behind the nasal passages. As such, when the Eustachian tubes become swollen as a result of a respiratory infection or an allergic reaction, this can significantly impact the middle ear. There are other conditions that can cause ear infection though this is the most common.
Although many ear infections do not cause any long term complications, treating an ear infection is essential. There are a number of complications that can occur when an ear infection goes untreated such as vertigo, impaired hearing, hearing loss, ringing in the ear, speech delays, developmental delays, bleeding in the ear canal, spread of infection and even tearing in the eardrum. Some tearing in the eardrum can be so severe that surgical assistance is required.
When an ear infection occurs, the symptoms that appear typically do so quite rapidly. In children, the most common symptoms that indicate ear infection include pain in the ear especially when lying down, tugging at the ear, crying more than normal, difficulty sleeping, acting irritably, difficulty responding to sounds or hearing, balance loss, fluid drainage from the ear, loss of appetite or change in appetite, headache and a fever of 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher. For adults, the most common signs and symptoms of ear infection include pain in the ear, diminished ability to hear and fluid drainage from the ear.
In most cases, a doctor can identify an ear infection with a basic examination. There are other ways that a doctor can determine the cause of the ear infection and the extent of the damage, however, including pneumatic otoscope, tympanometry, tympanocentesis and acoustic reflectometry. These tests will help physicians to determine if there is a fluid buildup in the ear, how much fluid has built up and what is causing the underlying infection. Treating the underlying infection is essential to eliminating the ear infection and reversing any damage that it may have caused.
Each ear infection is different, with some only requiring the treatment of symptoms and others requiring antibiotics or other treatment options. Some physicians adopt a wait and see approach unless there is an indicator that the infection is worsening. Children who have ear infections should see improvement within 48 hours from the first signs and symptoms. Patients can manage pain and other symptoms using warm compresses, pain medications, prescription ear drops and antibiotic medications. Children with recurrent ear infections may need myringotomy, a procedure involving inserting a tube into the ear to aid in ventilation.