Ear infections

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Otitis media refers to inflammation of the middle ear. When infection occurs, the condition is called acute otitis media, or ear infection. Acute otitis media occurs when a cold, allergy, or upper respiratory infection (including the nose, sinuses, larynx or voice box, and throat) and the presence of bacteria or viruses lead to the accumulation of pus, inflammation, and mucus behind the eardrum, blocking the eustachian tube (tube leading from the ear to the throat). Earache is painful due to swelling, but usually does not require treatment. More fluid may collect and push against the eardrum, causing pain and sometimes a temporary or, in severe cases, a permanent loss of hearing. Fever generally lasts about one to two days; pain and crying may last for three to four hours. After that, most children have some pain on and off for up to four days, although young children may have pain that comes and goes for up to nine days. Adults experience similar symptoms.
Next to the common cold, ear infections are the most commonly diagnosed childhood illness in the United States. More than three out of four children have had at least one ear infection by the time they reach three years of age. Adults can get the condition also, but it is much less common.
A child's eustachian tubes (tubes connecting the ears to the throat) are narrower and shorter than those of an adult. This makes it easier for fluid to get trapped in the middle ear when the eustachian tubes dysfunction or become blocked during a cold. This provides a perfect breeding ground for infection to develop.
Treating children with antibiotics may shorten these symptoms by about one day, according to a study of 240 children ages six months to two years. However, about 80% of the time the immune system can fend off infection and heal the ear infection without the use of antibiotics. In severe cases, too much fluid can increase pressure on the eardrum until it ruptures, allowing the fluid to drain. When this happens, fever and pain usually go away and the infection clears. The eardrum usually heals on its own, often in just a couple of weeks. However, if the eardrum does not heal, a doctor may touch the edges of the eardrum with epidermal growth factor to stimulate growth and then place a thin paper patch on the eardrum.

Related Terms

Acute viral nasopharyngitis, asdenoid, allergy, auditory, aural, chronic suppurative otitis media, common cold, eustachian tube, Fahrenheit, flu, influenza, labyrinthitis, larynx, mastoiditis, mucous membrane, mucus, myringotomy, myringoplasty, externa, otitis media, otitis, otitis interna, otorrhea, pneumatic otoscope, pneumonia, reflectometry, respiratory syncytial viruses (RSV), rhinoviruses, sinus, sinusitis, swimmer's ear, symptomatic, tonsil, trachea, tympanocentesis, tympanometry, tympanoplasty, upper respiratory infection (URI), vertigo, viral infection, virus.

types of ear infections

Otitis externa: Otitis externa, or swimmer's ear, is an infection of the outer ear structures. It typically occurs in swimmers, but the since the cause of the infection is water trapped in the ear canal, bathing or showering may also cause this common infection. When water is trapped in the ear canal, bacteria that normally inhabit the skin and ear canal multiply, causing infection and irritation of the ear canal. If the infection progresses it may involve the outer ear.
Swimmer's ear is sometimes confused with otitis media (middle ear infections), especially when there is drainage from the ear (otorrhea). In middle ear infections, drainage only occurs if the tympanic membrane (ear drum) has either a perforation (hole) or bulges in the membrane.
Otitis media with effusion: When fluid forms in the middle ear, the condition is known as otitis media with effusion. This occurs in a recovering ear infection or when an ear infection is starting. Fluid can remain in the ear for weeks to months. When a discharge from the ear persists or repeatedly returns, this is sometimes called chronic middle ear infection. Fluid can remain in the ear up to three weeks following the infection. If not treated, chronic ear infections have potentially serious consequences such as temporary or permanent hearing loss.
All children with middle ear infection or fluid have some degree of hearing loss. The average hearing loss in ears with fluid is 24 decibels, equivalent to wearing ear plugs. If a child has a hearing loss, they should be examined by an ear, nose, and throat specialist at the earliest opportunity. Hearing loss can be temporary, lasting only a few days, to permanent in severe infections.
Suppurative otitis media: A condition called chronic suppurative otitis media (an ear infection with drainage lasting more than two weeks) can develop from repeat ear infections.
Otitis interna: Otitis interna, or inner ear infection, is inflammation of the inner ear. It is among the most common ear infections and is usually caused by water trapped inside the ear by earwax. Labyrinthitis is a type of inner ear infection that typically results in severe vertigo (dizziness) lasting for one or more days. It is thought to be caused by a viral inflammation of the vestibular labyrinth (the part of the inner ear responsible for balance). Individuals usually complain of a sudden onset of severe whirling vertigo (dizziness), nausea, and vomiting. The symptoms can be so severe and disabling that people frequently go to the emergency room for care and require drugs to help regain balance, such as meclizine (Antivert®). Symptoms typically subside over a few days, but may leave the individual with slight imbalance that slowly improves over weeks or months. Hearing loss rarely accompanies the vertigo (dizziness) in labyrinthitis.