Ins and Outs of Ear Infections

Boy holding ears in pain from ear infection

Ear infections can be pretty painful and annoying, especially for children. Do you know the difference between these three ear infections: swimmer’s ear, middle ear infections and inner ear infections?

“It’s important to know what kind of ear infection you or your child have so that it can be treated properly,” said Abraham Jacob, MD, director of the Banner – University Medical Center Ear Institute.

Middle Ear Infections

A middle ear infection is an infection behind the eardrum. Middle ear infections are most common in children, but adults can also get middle ear infections.

Causes of a middle ear infection can include:

  • Allergies
  • Colds or sinus infections
  • Enlarged or infected adenoids
  • Extra saliva or mucus produced during teething
  • Irritation from tobacco smoke

Know the symptoms:

  • Fever
  • Ear pain
  • Ear drainage
  • Decreased hearing

For children, symptoms may also include:

  • Irritability and crying more than usual
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Loss of appetite and/or vomiting because of nausea
  • Loss of balance
  • Tugging or pulling at the affected ear

Treatment will depend on several factors, including age and severity of symptoms, but antibiotics are usually not needed. Symptoms should improve within a few days, and most infections clear up without treatment in a couple weeks.

Dr. Jacob said a wait-and-see approach is often recommended for the first 48 to 72 hours for children ages 2 or older and adults who are otherwise healthy with only mild symptoms.

It’s time to see the doctor if symptoms worsen over 24 to 48 hours with any of the following symptoms:

  • Dizziness
  • High fever
  • Severe ear pain or ear discharge
  • Severe headache
  • Swelling around the ear
  • Weakness/twitching of facial muscles

Inner Ear Infections

Inner ear infections are much less common and relatively rare. Signs of an inner ear infection include hearing loss, dizziness and nausea. If you are experiencing these symptoms not tied to another illness, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor.

Swimmer’s Ear

After spending time in the water, water and moisture can stay in the ear canal, leading to swimmer’s ear. Common in the summer, swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear canal – the area from the opening of the ear to the eardrum.

Know the signs:

  • Ear pain
  • Feeling of fullness in the ear
  • There may also be ear drainage

See your doctor if you think you or your child may have swimmer’s ear. He or she will examine the ear and begin treating the infection with prescription ear drops or creams.

Avoiding Ear Infections

You can help prevent ear infections in general by avoiding water in the ear, not picking at your ear, and not inserting anything into the ear, such as a cotton swab.

The risk of developing a middle ear infection can be reduced by avoiding contact with someone who is sick, being up-to-date on vaccinations and avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke.

Trust me, I know how tempting it is to stick a cotton swab in your ear after a shower or swim. But Dr. Jacob stresses that your ears are self-cleaning and recommends that the only cleaning you do is to wipe the opening of your ear with a towel.

This post was originally published July 19, 2016.
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