One can have ear infections at any age. Earache and feeling ill are the first symptoms. Antibiotics are given only in a few cases, whereas painkillers are prescribed as the main treatment. Usually the infection clears in a few days.
The two main types of ear infections are - those that occur in the outer ear canal (otitis externa) and those that occur in the tiny space behind the eardrum (middle ear).
Even though earache is a common symptom of ear infection, all earaches are not infections. A common cause of mild earache is a build-up of mucous in the middle ear after a cold, which usually clears in a few days. Sometimes, the pain that is felt in the ear is from other causes like jaw joint pain or tooth problems (referred otalgia).
Swimmers Ear (Otitis Externa)
This condition can crop up when bacteria nestle into an outer ear canal that is warm and moist. Being in the water a lot also tends to wash away the natural oily, waxy substance that normally lines and protects the ear canal. Bacteria can then get the upper hand and you get an infection. Water can be left in your ear after taking a shower, or poking around with a bobby pin or cotton-tipped swab can scratch the delicate skin in the ear canal and break down the barrier against bacteria, resulting in an outer ear canal infection also called otitis externa. Resist the urge to scratch, as that will make the problem worse. Don’t let the water sit in your ear. Shake the water out after a shower or swim. The best way to dry the ear is to roll the corner of a soft cotton handkerchief and use it to mop the canal.
Middle Ear Infection (Otitis Media)
Middle-ear infection (known medically as otitis media) is the most common illness in babies and young children. The outer ear is connected to an aircontaining space called the middle ear. The air pressure in the middle ear is equalised more than one thousand times a day every time you swallow, through the Eustachian tube, which also carries fluid away from the middle ear.
When a cold or an allergy is present, the Eustachian tube swells and air is absorbed by the lining of the middle ear, creating a partial vacuum, and fluid weeps from the lining of the middle ear. Bacteria or viruses infect the stagnant, warm fluid in the middle ear. Children may be more prone to middle-ear infections as their Eustachian tubes are shorter and straighter than those in adults; they get colds and sore throats more often than adults as their immune system is not fully developed. Most bouts of ear infection will clear within two or three days, on their own without treatment.
Antibiotics are mostly prescribed in the following cases:
1. Children under the age of two years (babies are at a greater risk of complications)
2. Severe infection
3. Infection not settling within 2-3 days
1. Keep your child away from other kids who have infections.
2. Take care of nasal allergies and teach your child to blow the nose gently.
3. Do not expose your child to cigarette smoke.
4. Avoid giving a bottle of milk or formula to a baby who is lying on his/her back, because the nutrient-rich liquid can flow into the Eustachian tube during swallowing and pool there, creating a breeding ground for infectious organisms. Prop the child’s head up on pillows.
5. Occasionally, some children have recurring bouts of ear infections close together. If this occurs, the ENT specialist may advise a long course of antibiotics to prevent further bouts from occurring.
At times, the ENT specialist may advise the insertion of a grommet or tympanostomy tube into the eardrum if ear infections are very frequent. A grommet is like a tiny pipe that helps to drain fluid out from the middle ear and allow proper ventilation of the middle ear.