What Is an Ear Infection? How to Recognize One?

There’s no pain quite like ear pain. But did you know there are several different types of ear infections that all require different types of treatments? You can help distinguish what type of ear infection you have by understanding the symptoms.

Let’s get to the point, what is an ear infection?

The ear is a complex structure that includes:

  • EarThe main canal that sounds travels through
  • An ear drum that vibrates when sound waves hit it
  • Tiny bones that help transmit that vibration, and then
  • The cochlea which translates the vibrations into an electrical impulse that our brains understand as noise.

Any one of these areas of the ear could get infected and cause ear pain but you might be surprised that not all ear infections present or are treated the same way.

There Are Three Types of Ear Infection

There are three main types of ear infections: outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear infection.

Outer Ear Infection (Otitis Externa)

This type of ear infection is also known as Swimmer’s ear. It’s basically inflammation in the ear canal that can affect any person at any age. Not just swimmers!

The inflammation is extremely painful and can cause the ear canal to swell shut. If  pulling on your ear causes a significant amount of pain or drainage, you could have an outer ear infection.

Other symptoms include itchiness in your ear, redness, clear discharge, and muffled hearing.

Luckily, the treatments to help cure this kind of ear infection are topical, usually no oral antibiotics are required depending on the severity.

Middle Ear Infection (Otitis Media)

This type of infection is seen more common in children, but anyone can get it. If you get a cold, flu, or allergies, your nasal passages become swollen and blocked.

Middle Ear InfectionBacteria that lives in your nose can get trapped and travel into your middle ear.

The bacteria or a virus causes pus to form behind the ear drum. Pressure builds up behind the ear drum and can even cause it to rupture. But don’t worry, it can grow back.

Middle ear infections are also painful and can present with other symptoms like fever, fatigue, or headache.

Sometimes it can be difficult to hear out of the infected ear because the ear drum is not vibrating due to the pus pushing up against it. Usually this is temporary and goes away ones the fluid and pus resolves.

If you have ear pain for more than a day without improvement, or you notice blood or pus coming from your ear, contact your doctor.

Inner Ear Infection (Region “C”)

An infection in your inner ear affects the delicate parts of your ear that helps maintain your balance and equilibrium. Usually, inner ear infections are not painful, instead, patients present with vertigo, hearing loss, or ringing in their ears.

This type of ear infection is usually caused by a virus so antibiotics are usually not needed, however a trip to your doctor important as to avoid permanent damage to your hearing.

What Causes Ear Infections and What Are the Main Symptoms

Main Causes of Ear Infection

  • Outer ear infection are usually caused by bacteria, virus, or fungus from water that can sneak into the ear canal during swimming or bathing. That’s why they are usually associated with swimmers.
  • Middle ear infections have a variety of causes based on the patient’s age.
    • Children and more likely to get ear infections if they attend day care, are bottle fed, are not up-to-date on their vaccinations, live with someone who smokes, or have respiratory problems like asthma.
    • Adults usually get ear infections after an upper respiratory illness like a cold, flu,  or allergies.

Typical Ear Infection Symptoms

  • Infant Ear InfectionFor adults, ear pain is the most common symptom along with fever and fatigue.
  • Children may exhibit other symptoms like, poor feeding, tugging at ears, inconsolable crying, and diarrhea.

Most Common Ear Infection Treatments

Each type of ear infection is treated differently:

  • Outer ear infection can be treated with ear infection remedies you already have at home or over the counter products. Avoid using ear plug, ear buds, or getting water in your ear until your symptoms have resolved.
  • Middle ear infections are sometimes caused by virus but can also be caused by bacteria. Oral antibiotics are usually the first line treatment. Your doctor may also prescribe medications to reduce the pain, like Tylenol or ear drops.
  • Inner ear infections require oral steroids to decrease the inflammation. It might take time to see improvement in symptoms.

Remember, your ears are delicate and deserve good care.

What experiences have you had with ear infections?


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