Few things in life are as irritating as developing an ear infection, but almost everyone encounters them at some stage in their lives. In fact, around 80 percent of children experience an ear infection before the age of five and about one percent of all adults develop an infection every year. Across the USA, that adds up to a lot of pain and annoyance, so what can be done to avoid these nasty conditions?
What causes ear infections?
Firstly, let’s talk about what ear infections are and where they come from. The most common type of infection of the ears is known as Otitis Media. In these cases, bacteria take root in the fluid in the middle ear, causing the ear drum to become inflamed and cause plenty of pain. In the majority of cases, bacteria are the culprit, although viruses can also play a role, and allergies can also cause symptoms that resemble ear infections. But most of the time, the roots lie in bacterial infection. These bacteria develop when fluid builds up inside the ear, which has other causes. It could be an allergic reaction or a respiratory infection. Anything that blocks the Eustachian tubes and causes fluids to build up inside the ear creates the ideal breeding ground for germs. After that, it’s often only a matter of time before pneumococcus, Haemophilus influenzae or Moraxella catarrhalis make themselves at home, eventually developing into a full-blown ears infection.
What are the symptoms of an ear infection?
When this happens, you’ll know about it. While not life-threatening, the symptoms of ear infections can be extremely unpleasant. For one thing, pain is almost always present, as the body becomes irritated by the bacteria build-up and signals to the brain that there’s a problem. As usual with bacterial infections, fever tends to develop as well, along with a steady discharge of mucus. This may sometimes contain blood if the ear drum has been ruptured, but will usually just be yellow in appearance. In many cases, sufferers experience secondary symptoms like poor sleep patterns (owing to the pain), itchiness, irritability, and vomiting. In other words, when you develop an ear infection, expect a full range of nasty symptoms, and if it develops in a child, expect plenty of noise and distress. It’s not a nice experience for adults, but having an ear infection is worse for young children.
How do medical professionals diagnose ear infections?
Fortunately, the vast majority of ear infections can be treated via modern medical science. The first step in the process is to accurately diagnose whether the patient is suffering from an infection (or something else like a rash or allergy). To do this, ear specialists will use something called an otoscope to look inside your ear. That’s the device that looks a little like a torch, and peeks inside the inner ear, providing a good image of the skin inside, as well as the state of the ear drum. The otoscope creates tiny puffs of air, which are directed against the drum. If the drum moves, then that’s a good sign, probably signifying that there’s no fluid build-up. But if the drum remains static, your doctor may well diagnose an ear infection, as it’s a strong indication of fluid behind the ear drum. To make sure, they can also use other tests such as tympanometry, which also measures how the ear drum is moving, or reflectometry, which measures how much sound is reflected from the drum. They will also have to decide whether you are suffering from a proper ear infection or just a fluid build-up without a full infection – which demands slightly different treatment (and isn’t as serious).
How to treat an ear infection
When the diagnosis has been completed and it looks like you are suffering from an ear infection, the next stage is to decide how to treat it. Again, we’re lucky to live at a time when how to treat an ear infection isn’t a huge problem. All infections and patients differ, but the treatment is relatively similar for most people. Firstly, may well prescribe some form of antibiotic to control and remove the bacteria that have caused the infection. However, there will usually be a “wait and see” period before taking this step. Many infections resolve without the need for medication, and specialists now recommend limiting antibiotic usage as possible to prevent the development of resistance. Pain management is often a key part of the treatment, involving warm compresses and store-bought painkillers like Tylenol or ibuprofen. In some cases, doctors may also recommend the use of ear tubes. Particularly common with children, this treatment involves inserting tubes into the middle ear and “sucking” fluid through a carefully created hole in the ear drum. The process can take a few hours or, more usually, the tubes are left in place for weeks or months. It’s not the preferred treatment for ear infections, but often ear tubes are the only way to resolve persistent cases of fluid build-up.
Ear infections afflict millions of Americans every year, causing distress for children and irritation for adults. While they can usually be treated, they can also often be prevented by maintaining good hygiene standards, immunizing children and keeping kids away from cigarette smoke. However, sometimes, people are simply unfortunate, and infections take hold. When they do, be sure to seek medical help promptly. With a quick response and professional diagnosis, very few ear infections lead to serious complications, but if left untreated, they can become harder to treat and an extremely uncomfortable experience.