The ear is a complex structure that consists
of three sections: the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear.
A tiny tube, called the eustachian tube, connects the middle ear
to the back of the throat and nose. This is the tube that we open
by yawning or swallowing.
Most parents are familiar with ear infections
and they are usually the most common reason for a visit to the doctor.
Chances are, that by the time a child reaches the age of 6 they
will have suffered an ear infection of some form. Most ear infections
get better without any treatment, but if you are in doubt of the
severity of the problem you should always contact your doctor.
Inflammation of the ear is called otitis.
Otitis ear infection occurs when bacteria or a virus invade the
external, middle or inner part of the ear. There are 2 common types
of ear infections, otitis media and otitis externa.
What is otitis media?
Otitis media (also known as middle ear infection
or glue ear) is an infection or inflammation of the part of the
ear behind the eardrum. Otitis media is more common in children
and causes ear pains and fever. It can affect one or both ears at
the same time.
What causes otitis media?
When a child has a cold, throat infection or
a nasal allergy like hay
fever the eustachian tube can become blocked, causing
a build-up of fluid in the middle ear. If bacteria or a virus infects
this fluid, it can cause swelling of the eardrum and pain in the
ear, this is known as otitis media.
What are the symptoms of otitis media?
The most common symptoms of otitis media are
pain, discomfort and sometimes an annoying itch in the ear (babies
may tug or pull at their ear if they are experiencing pain), other
common symptoms are:
- Sickness - usually in children.
- Fluid draining from the ear.
- There may be some difficulty in hearing.
- Dizziness (not very common).
The actual infection normally only lasts a few
days, but the decrease in hearing may last for a few weeks after
the initial infection.
What are the risk factors of otitis media?
Children are more vulnerable to otitis media
because their eustachian tube is shorter and straighter than in
adults, so infections such as a common
cold, sore throat or tonsillitis can easily travel to the middle ear. However, otitis media can affect
people of all ages. Otitis media is also more likely to occur during
the winter months. Other factors that may cause otitis media include:
- Bottle feeding - babies who are bottle-fed
especially while they are lying down get more ear infections than
babies who are breast-fed. If you bottle-feed, keep your baby's
head above his/her stomach level during feeding.
- Tobacco smoke - children who breathe in tobacco smoke have a higher risk
of developing many health problems including ear infections.
- A previous family history of middle ear infections.
- Allergy problems - such as hay fever.
How is otitis media diagnosed?
In most cases, if someone is suffering from
a cold or sore
throat that suddenly gets worse, with ear pain and a
fever, then the diagnosis is likely to be otitis media. It is still
wise to see a doctor, as he will look into the ear with a special
torch known as an otoscope, enabling him/her to see clearly if there
is inflammation and/or infection.
How is otitis media treated?
Once a diagnosis has been made treatment can
start immediately so that the pain can be reduced. Home treatments
such as paracetamol can be used to relieve the pain and discomfort
in the ear. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics especially if
you also have a throat infection.
What is otitis externa?
Otitis externa (also known as outer ear infection
or swimmer's ear) is a painful, sometimes itchy infection of the
outer ear canal.
What causes otitis externa?
Otitis externa is caused by bacteria or fungi
that invade the ear under unusually moist or wet conditions. As
a result, frequent swimming will increase your chance of infection.
Exposure to water moistens the skin in the ear canal and provides
the ideal environment for bacteria and fungi to grow. This is why
otitis externa is often called 'swimmer's ear'.
Sometimes there may be no reason why the infection has started,
however, other possible reasons for infections include:
- Getting water in your ears when showering
- Irritation due to the use of cotton buds
and/or ear plugs.
- A habit of picking and fiddling with the
- Skin allergies such as eczema.
- Hair spray or hair colour that gets into
the ear canal.
What are the symptoms of otitis externa?
Symptoms of otitis externa may include any of
- Itchiness in the ear.
- Discharge from the ear.
- Pain in the ear made worse by movement of
the ear lobe or moving the jaw.
- Temporary reduced hearing.
- Slight fever.
- Inflammation in the ear.
What can be done to avoid otitis externa?
It is sometimes hard to avoid an ear infection,
but you can reduce your risk of infection by avoiding cleaning your
ears with cotton buds and by trying to prevent getting excess water
in your ears when swimming or taking a shower.
How is otitis externa diagnosed?
A doctor will normally be able to diagnose otitis
externa by inspecting the ear canal. If an infection is present
the ear canal will be red and there will be swelling of the ear
lining, usually in the form of flaking skin. There may also be a
foul smelling discharge.
If you do have an infection in your outer ear,
the treatment is with either ear-drops (containing antibiotics)
and/or a course of oral antibiotics. If the pain is very uncomfortable
you may be advised to take painkillers such as paracetamol or anti-inflammatory
drugs. If the ear canal needs more attention, then treatment could
include a thorough cleaning of the ear by your doctor or an ear
Contact your doctor if:
- You suspect your baby has earache.
- Any discharge is flowing out of your child's
- There are any hearing problems.
- A skin rash develops.
- A fever develops.