An ear infection occurs when fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear following a viral or bacterial infection. This painful affliction is most common in children, but can affect people of all ages. Ear infections can be either acute (of short duration) or chronic (persisting or reoccurring frequently).
Most ear infections are viral or bacterial in nature, usually occurring 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 nostrils and provides an outlet for fluid drainage, trapping germs and fluid in the middle ear and leading to infection. The result is a painful earache that may be accompanied by fluid drainage from the affected ear and a loss of hearing. Children may display an increase in crying and irritability, and suffer from fever, headache, loss of appetite, dizziness and difficulty sleeping.
Because children are still growing physically, some of their internal organs may also be temporarily underdeveloped. This is true of the Eustachian tube, the canal that connects the middle ear to the nostrils, providing an outlet for fluid drainage. Because the Eustachian tube is smaller in children, it is more prone to swelling; when this occurs, fluid is trapped in the middle ear. This fluid presses against the eardrum, causing pain, and can harbor germs that lead to infection. The result is an earache and, in some cases, loss of hearing. When the infection does not completely go away or returns often, it is referred to as chronic.
The hallmark signs of ear infection are pain and pressure in the ear and fluid drainage. These may be accompanied by a low-grade fever 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 the ear. Symptoms may be milder in chronic ear infections. Should the child display any of these symptoms, bring them to the doctor; the sooner an acute ear infection is treated, the lower the chances of it developing into a chronic condition.
Treating an ear infection begins at home. To help soothe symptoms, gently press a warm washcloth against the affected ear. The child may have eardrops and over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help relieve pain. Avoid aspirin, which can be dangerous to young children.
The child’s doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat a chronic ear infection. These should be taken until used up, even if the child’s symptoms appear to be improving; otherwise, the infection could worsen.
When medication is not effective, a surgical solution involving ear tubes may be considered. These are inserted in the middle ear and provide ventilation and fluids, keeping the ear clear and preventing infection. Most ear tubes remain in place anywhere from six to 18 months and eventually fall out on their own. If not, surgery to remove them is performed.
If left untreated, chronic 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. Better still is prevention.
Patients can’t always stave off an ear infection, but there are steps that can be taken to reduce the chances of a child developing one. These include breast-feeding babies, making sure he or she is up-to-date on vaccinations, practicing good hygiene (e.g., regular hand-washing), keeping children away from tobacco smoke, and enrolling them in as small a day care or preschool facility as possible. Simply put, fewer children mean fewer germs.
Call UCHealth Hearing & Balance at (720) 848-2800 for more information or to schedule an appointment.