An ear infection occurs when a bacterial or viral infection affects the middle ear — the sections of the ear just behind the eardrum. Ear infections can be painful because of inflammation and fluid buildup in the middle ear.
Ear infections can be chronic or acute.
Acute ear infections are painful but short in duration.
Chronic ear infections either don’t clear up or recur many times. Chronic ear infections can cause permanent damage to the middle and inner ear.
An ear infection occurs when one of the eustachian tubes becomes swollen or blocked, causing fluid to build up in the middle ear. Eustachian tubes are small tubes that run from each ear directly to the back of the throat.
Causes of eustachian tube blockage include:
● sinus infections
● excess mucus
● infected or swollen adenoids (tissue near the tonsils that traps harmful bacteria and viruses)
● changes in air pressure
The symptoms of an ear infection depend on the type, but may include:
● mild deafness or the sensation that sound is muffled
● ear discharge
● loss of appetite
● itchiness of the outer ear
● blisters on the outer ear or along the ear canal
● noises in the ear – such as buzzing or humming
● vertigo (loss of balance).
Most ear infections go away on their own. A virus can cause an ear infection, in which case antibiotics won’t help. Antibiotics may be provided if the infection is caused by bacteria. These medicines may need to be taken for a long time. They can be given by mouth or into a vein (intravenously).
If there is a hole in the eardrum, antibiotic ear drops are used. A mild acidic solution (such as vinegar and water) for a hard-to-treat infected ear may be used that has a hole (perforation). A surgeon may need to clean out (debride) tissue that has gathered inside the ear.
Other surgeries that may be needed include:
● Surgery to clean the infection out of the mastoid bone (mastoidectomy)
● Surgery to repair or replace the small bones in the middle ear
● Repair of the eardrum
● Ear tube surgery
Exams and Tests
Your provider will take your medical history and ask about symptoms.
The provider will look inside the ears using an instrument called an otoscope. This exam may show:
• Areas of marked redness
• Bulging of the tympanic membrane
• Discharge from the ear
• Air bubbles or fluid behind the eardrum
• A hole (perforation) in the eardrum
The provider might recommend a hearing test if the person has a history of ear infections.