Ear infections can be painful! They can lead to a trip to the physician’s office, use of antibiotics, and even time off of work or school.
By knowing the causes of ear infection you can learn how to avoid the risks associated with ear infections and what you can do to help prevent them.
What Can Cause an Ear Infection?
The ear is a work of art and complicated in its natural beauty. But to simplify it, you have your outer ear that includes your ear canal, and your middle ear which is behind your ear drum.
A small channel, called Eustachian tube, connects your middle ear to your nasopharynx (the back of your throat).
The tube is closed most of the time unless you are chewing or yawning, then it opens and allows air to equalize the pressure around your ear drum.
Upper Respiratory Infection Can Cause an Ear Infection
However, if you have an upper respiratory infection like a cold, or if you suffer from allergies, those Eustachian tubes can get clogged or become inflamed.
Bacteria or virus can then grow and travel to your middle ear.
The bacteria or virus irritates your middle ear which produces pus and fluid to kill the germs. Since the Eustachian tube is clogged, the fluid and pus cannot drain and it gets caught behind the ear drum.
That terrible pain and pressure is a result of the pus and fluid pushing against your ear drum!
The physicians call it a “bulging tympanic membrane” because your ear drum looks like a balloon trying squeeze out of your ear canal.
Water Is Another Cause of Ear Infection
The other type of ear infection is called Swimmer’s ear. This is an outer ear infection that affects your ear canal.
An outer ear infection is also very painful but it’s caused by water getting into your ear and trapping bacteria or fungus in the ear canal.
Although it’s painful, it usually does not require a trip to the physician.
Who Is at Risk of Ear Infections?
Ear infections are usually associated with childhood. It’s estimated that between 40-80% of children will experience at least one ear infection.
So why are children so much more likely to get an ear infection?
As we age, the shape of our ear canal changes! Making it more difficult for bacteria to get trapped in our ears.
There are many other factors that can cause an ear infection. Here’s a list of the most common situations and factors that may increase the risk of getting an ear infection:
- Physiology abnormalities: any one who has a Eustachian tube defect or other ear abnormality.
- Family history: if anyone in your family has had an ear infection, you’re more likely to get one as well.
- Day care: a child is about 2.5 times more likely to have ear infections if they attend a day care with four or more children.
- Lack of breast feeding: breast feeding reduces the amount of bacteria in the throat of children. The babies also are able to take advantage of their mother’s antibodies to protect them from infection.
- Pacifier use
- Ethnicity: Native Americans, Alaskan and Canadian Inuit children, and Indigenous Australian children at at higher risk for unknown reasons.
- Smoking: children and adults exposed to smoking and other air pollutants.
- Immune system: people with problems with their ability to fight off infections
- Chronic sinus infections
How to Decrease Your and Your Family’s Risk of Ear Infections
There are some risks that may be unavoidable, like taking your child out of daycare, or your heritage. However there are some things you can do to protect yourself and your family.
For Middle Ear Infections
- Stop smoking! This is easier said than done, but there are many resources available and free programs that can aid you in your journey to better health through smoking cessation. Unfortunately not many people are aware that smoking is one of the causes an ear infection.
- Wash your hands! This will help decrease the risk of spreading cold germs or flu virus: they can both be causes of ear infection.
- Keep up to date on your immunizations! Some of the same germs that cause ear infections are the same ones we have vaccines against.
- Discontinue pacifier use after 12 months of age!
- Breast feed your baby if possible! Not all mothers have the ability to breastfeed. What’s important is that baby gets enough nutrition.
For Outer Ear Infections
- If you get swimmer’s ear, avoid getting water in your ear canal! You can use swimmer’s putty prior to swimming or bathing to keep out the water, or use swimmer ear plugs (click on the image to view).
- Use Swimmer’s ear drops! These can be found at your local pharmacy. Make sure you follow directions and discard the bottle a few weeks after opening or bacteria might start growing in the bottle.
When to See a Physician
If you child is <2 years old, make an appointment with your doctor.
If your child is >2 years old and having other symptoms like fever, diarrhea, or vomiting, make an appointment with a physician.
For adults, if your ear infection symptoms do not improve in 24-48 hours, give your doctor a call!