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Symptoms of Ear Infection and Prevention of Otitis Media

Know the Basics|Symptoms|Risk Factors|Treatment|Prevention|Key Takeaways
Symptoms of Ear Infection and Prevention of Otitis Media

Know the Basics

The ears are parts of the body that most people tend to overlook. They enable us to listen to music, sing our favorite songs, fall asleep to a lullaby, and much more. They also enable us to have a sense of balance and equilibrium, and impairment may lead to dizziness. The ear can also be prone to infection, so it’s a good idea to be watchful for symptoms of ear infection.

The middle ear plays a vital role in carrying out the ear’s main function, which is to detect sound. It serves the function of transmitting sound from one part of the ear (outer ear) to another (inner ear). The middle ear is also an area of the ear that’s closest to the throat, making it vulnerable to bacteria.

Learn more about middle ear infection, what causes it, symptoms of ear infection, and how you can keep your ear healthy.

Middle Ear Infection: Definition and Causes

Your ear is made up of three parts:

  • Outer ear: The outer ear is responsible for picking up sound waves and ushering them into the ear.
  • Middle ear: This is the space between the outer and inner ear.
  • Inner ear: This part of the ear contains the auditory nerves which send signals to your brain.

The middle ear is a space behind the eardrum where you can find bones like the stirrup (stapes), the anvil (incus), and the hammer (malleus). These bones vibrate so that you can hear things. This part of the ear also contains the eustachian tubes and the adenoids. It’s important to learn more about these two parts of the middle ear in order to understand why ear infections happen.

The eustachian tube is the connection between the middle ear and the throat which prevents pressure and fluid from building up inside the ear. The tube does this by opening whenever you yawn, sneeze, or swallow.

The tube can get swollen or congested when you suffer from an allergy or a cold. This can lead to an accumulation of pressure and secretion in the middle ear that can cause an infection.

Another way for the middle ear to get infected is through the adenoids, which are part of the body’s system to fight off infection. Adenoids are a patch of tissues that can be found in the nasal cavity, near the opening of the eustachian tube.

Adenoids become swollen and puffy especially if they’re trying to fight off germs from entering the body. This can block the eustachian tube causing pressure and fluid to accumulate in the center of the ear, which may lead to an infection.

Middle ear infections, sometimes referred to as otitis media, occurs when the middle ear becomes infected because of a build-up of harmful bacteria. This can happen to people of all ages, but is most common among children.

Other possible causes of middle ear infections occur when:

  • Noninfectious fluid builds up in the middle ear (Otitis media with effusion)
  • Fluid build-up remains or reoccurs in the middle ear without an infection (Chronic otitis media with effusion)
  • An infection doesn’t go away even with treatment (Chronic suppurative otitis media)

Anatomy of the Ear: How Things Work Together So You Can Hear

Symptoms

One of the most common signs that you have an ear infection is when you can’t hear things properly and when you’re experiencing ear pain. Other symptoms of ear infection include:

Children, who are most susceptible to ear infections, may not be able to fully express what they’re feeling. Look out for these signs in children or babies if you suspect that they have an ear infection:

  • Fever of 38 degrees Celsius or higher
  • Fatigue or lack of energy
  • Unresponsive to some sounds
  • Being fussy, restless, or crying more than usual
  • Sudden loss of appetite
  • Rubbing or pulling of the ear
  • Trouble keeping their balance
  • Discharge coming out of the ear

People, especially children, are most vulnerable to middle ear infections right after they’ve had a cold. If you’re a parent, make sure to monitor your child for symptoms of ear infection right after any upper respiratory infection.

Risk Factors

Usually, symptoms of ear infection last for about three to seven days and the infection goes away on its own. However, chronic or long-time recurring ear infections can put you at risk of:

  • Permanent loss of hearing
  • Delay in the development of speech in toddlers
  • Spread of infection to nearby parts of the ear or in some cases, to the brain
  • Tearing of the eardrum

Why Are Children More At Risk of Ear Infections?

Children who are aged two to four are more at risk of developing ear infections because:

  1. Children’s eustachian tubes are shorter and narrower. This means that bacteria from the throat can easily travel up to the middle ear. This also makes the tubes more prone to blockage and less angulated. In contrast, adults’ eustachian tubes are more angulated, thus the secretions from the nose won’t reach the ears that easily.
  2. The adenoids are at their largest during childhood. This means that they can block the eustachian tubes much easier.

Hearing Loss: Everything You Need To Know

Treatment

Usually, doctors are able to diagnose ear infections if they see pus or fluid build-up in the areas of the middle ear. This is usually done by using an otoscope, an instrument used to view the ear canal.

One way your doctor may try to detect infection in the middle ear is by blowing air through the otoscope. If the eardrum appears to be stiff, then there is usually an accumulation of fluid behind it.

Antibiotics are only prescribed for middle ear infections if your body’s immune system is unable to clear it in two to three days.

Prevention

Infections affecting the middle ear are usually not a cause for too much concern. However, extra precaution must be made for babies and children as an ear infection can affect their hearing or development. Some ways to prevent ear infections are the following:

  • Practice good hand hygiene. Washing your hands regularly is the best way to avoid colds, which can prevent ear infections.
  • If your baby is bottle-fed, make sure to avoid giving them a bottle while they’re laying down.
  • Make sure to stay up to date with your child’s vaccinations.
  • Avoid secondhand smoke or quit smoking, cigarette smoke can aggravate ear infection symptoms.

Key Takeaways

Ear infections happen when there is a build-up of fluid and bacteria in the middle ear, the area of the ear nearest to the throat. Usually, symptoms of ear infection are mild and go away in a few days without treatment. However, if you find that ear pain is severe or you notice a bloody discharge then it’s best to consult with a medical practitioner right away.

Learn more about Ear Conditions here.

Hello Health Group does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

Sources

The middle ear, https://www.hear-it.org/The-middle-ear-1, Accessed Aug. 14, 2020

Eustachian Tube Dysfunction, https://familydoctor.org/condition/eustachian-tube-dysfunction/, Accessed Aug. 14, 2020

Middle Ear Infections (Otitis Media), https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/otitis-media.html, Accessed Aug. 14, 2020

Ear infection (middle ear), https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ear-infections/symptoms-causes/syc-20351616, Accessed Aug. 14, 2020

Ear Infection, https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/for-patients/common-illnesses/ear-infection.html, Accessed Aug. 14, 2020

Middle-Ear Infection (Otitis Media), https://www.health.harvard.edu/a_to_z/middle-ear-infection-otitis-media-a-to-z, Accessed Aug. 14, 2020

Head and Neck Surgery on Acute Otitis Media in Children, Clinical Practice Guidelines of the Philippine Society of Otolaryngology

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Written by Tracey Romero Updated May 26
Medically reviewed by Diana Rose G. Tolentino, M.D.
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