Ear Infection - Symptoms, Risk factors and Treatment

Ear infection or otitis media refers to the infection of the middle ear. 


Anatomy of the ear


The ear consists of three parts, the external, middle, and internal ear. 

The external ear consists of the outer, visible part of the ear and some of its parts are in the skull till the tympanic membrane also known as the eardrum. The external ear is connected to the middle ear, which consists of a hollow cavity and some bones which are small in size but are of paramount importance. The middle ear is responsible for the transmission of sound waves from the external ear to the internal ear. The middle ear is connected to the nasopharynx- the part where your nose and throat are in continuity through the eustachian tubes. The middle ear is also connected to the internal ear- which is a complex structure that converts the mechanical signals received from the middle ear into electrical signals that the brain can understand. The inner ear contains bony and membranous structures and plays a major role in maintaining the body’s balance.



What causes otitis media?


Different bacteria and viruses are responsible for causing otitis media. Viruses that cause cold and flu can cause an ear infection. The most common bacteria responsible for an ear infection are:


  • Streptococcus pneumoniae

  • Haemophilus influenzae


Moreover, blockage of Eustachian tubes plays a role in otitis media as it causes fluid build-up and promotes the growth of bacteria and viruses. The different causes of eustachian tube blockage are:


  • Allergies

  • Sinusitis

  • Colds

  • Smoking

  • Swollen adenoids (Patches of lymphatic tissue at the back of the nose)

  • Changes in air pressure


Risk factors for getting an ear infection:


In children:


Age:

Children less than 5 years old are at a higher risk for getting an ear infection.


Bottle-Feeding:

Children who are not breastfed are at a higher risk for getting otitis media as breastmilk has antibodies that help fight off infections. Moreover, if children are fed while lying too flat, the milk can enter the eustachian tubes and irritate them, thereby increasing the risk of an ear infection.


Congenital defects:

Congenital anomalies like cleft palate can increase the risk of otitis media as they cause eustachian tube inflammation.


Risk factors for both children and adults:


Smoke exposure:

Cigarette smoking or indirect exposure to smoke increases the chance of getting an ear infection as it can cause eustachian tube blockage.


Allergies:

Allergies increase the risk of an ear infection due to inflammation.


Season:

The chances of getting an ear infection are higher in cold seasons and autumn.


Lowered immunity

Any condition that causes immune system suppression lets different bacteria infect an individual as the immune system is responsible for fighting off different infections. Conditions like AIDS, cancer chemotherapy, diabetes, etc. can predispose a person to catch infections like otitis media.




Symptoms of otitis media:

The symptoms of otitis media are:


In children:

A child may have an ear infection if they experience one or more of the following symptoms:


  • Fever

  • Crying or irritability

  • Trouble sleeping

  • Pulling his/her ear

  • Discharge from the ear


In adults:

  • Ear pain

  • Pressure in the ear

  • Fluid discharge from the ear

  • Difficulty in hearing


Treatment of ear infection:


Mostly, ear infections clear up on their own, and the treatment is aimed at pain relief. Painkillers are prescribed to help lower the pain. However, if the infection persists, or is severe, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics like amoxicillin to treat the infection.


Complications of otitis media:


Usually, ear infections do not cause complications and go away on their own. However, repeated ear infections can cause complications such as:


Meningitis:

The ear and brain are in close association and are separated by each other by a plate of bone. An ear infection can spread to the brain and cause meningitis.


Mastoiditis:

The mastoid process is a bone located on the back of the ear, filled with air cells.  Otitis media is the most common cause of mastoiditis. This complication is rare these days due to the treatment of ear infections by antibiotics.


Hearing loss:

There may be a temporary or permanent loss of hearing as the infection can damage the ear. In children, if the hearing is impaired for a long period of time, though temporarily, this may cause a delay in speech and other social skills.


Prevention of ear infection:


The prevention of ear infection include:

  • In children:

  • Breastfeeding the child

  • Vaccinating the child properly, especially for flu and pneumococcal vaccine

  • If bottle-feeding, the child should be inclined.


For both children and adults:

  • Washing hands

  • Keeping allergies in check

  • Avoiding cigarette smoking and exposure to smoke



Conclusion:


Otitis media can affect both children and adults, but it is more common in children due to shorter eustachian tubes and some other factors. With the right and timely treatment, the infection can be treated, and the complications can be prevented.


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