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Other Names:
Otitis Media - acute; Infection - inner ear; Middle ear infection - acute

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Ear Infections, also known as Otitis Media, are an infection or inflammation of the middle ear. Ear infections often occur as a secondary infection when infections that cause sore throats, colds, or other respiratory or breathing problems spread to the middle ear. Viruses or bacteria enter the ear canal and infect, trapping mucous and fluid inside. Although otitis media primarily affects infants and children, adults are not immune.

There are two kinds of ear infections. Acute Otitis Media (AOM) is a painful condition where fluid and mucous are trapped in the ear and cause severe pain and inflammation. Otitis Media with Effusion (fluid) or OME is very similar to AOM, but the fluid remains trapped in the ear after the infection has run its course. This leads to hearing difficulties in the patient.

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The hallmark symptom of an ear infection is severe pain inside the ear. This can lead to extreme irritability, problems sleeping and difficulties with hearing and speaking. Fluid leaking from the ear and a high fever can also accompany these symptoms. Very young children, the most common victims of this condition, often cannot verbalize how they are feeling, so the following symptoms are signals that a child may have an ear infection:

  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Frequent crying
  • Tugging and pulling at the ears
  • Fever
  • Fluid leaking from ears
  • Unresponsiveness to quiet, but usually audible sounds
  • Impaired balance

Ear infections can also cause swollen adenoids. This is caused when the eustachian tubes become infected. The eustachian tubes supply air to the ears and regulate balance. In an infection, they become clogged and trap air and mucous inside. This infection can spread to the adenoids (a clump of cells located in the throat that fight infection). This can cause difficulties with eating and speaking, and be very painful. Children have smaller eustachian tubes which more easily become blocked, making the risk of infection much greater. When the adenoids swell, they can further block the drainage of the eustachian tubes and prolong the length of the illness.

Bloody fluid leaking from the ears, associated with dizziness, hearing loss and a temporary reduction or increase in pain are all signs that the eardrum has been perforated. This is a rather serious matter and children exhibiting these symptoms should be taken to a hospital immediately.

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Ear infections are one of the leading causes of workplace absence in parents of young children. Ear infections can be very painful. If ear infections are not treated, the infection can spread from the middle ear to other nearby areas in the head and even the brain of the patient. Usually the loss of hearing caused by an ear infection is temporary but if this is left untreated, otitis media can cause long-term hearing loss. The OME variation of ear infection leaves fluid trapped in the ear and in eustachian tubes. This can cause long-term or even permanent hearing loss and balance problems that get progressively worse if left untreated.

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Possible Causes

Ear infections begin as a respiratory infection. Sore throats, colds and other illnesses of the respiratory system can migrate into the ears. They can be either bacterial or viral, but all variations cause the same effects. In babies, ear infections are often associated with teething and exposure to cigarette smoke.

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Treatment Options

Antibiotics and medicated drops are often prescribed by a doctor for cases of ear infections. The drops may help relieve pain and discomfort, while antibiotics can assist in clearing up a bacterially-based infection. Oral pain killers are also commonly prescribed. Doctors routinely prescribe antibiotics for coughs, colds, flu, or viral infections and antibiotics are not useful in treating the health condition. Unfortunately these treatments cause certain bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics and because ear infections are caused by a variety of virus or bacteria, sometimes even antibiotics will not be effective. The doctor is then forced to prescribe several different antibiotics before the ear infection clears. Of course antibiotics have side effects such as nausea, diarrhea, and rashes

For some cases of OME, where fluid remains trapped in the ear months after the infection clears, surgery may be necessary to prevent permanent damage to hearing. To save a child’s hearing, a myringotomy may be preformed. A myringotomy is a small tube inserted into a small hole made in the child’s eardrum by a surgeon. This tube will allow fluid to drain and give greater access to sound and fresh air to the middle ear. This will allow the child to hear and speak properly again. The tubes usually fall out on their own within a few months of the surgery, and in rare cases, multiple myringotomies may have to be performed on the same child.

For severe inflammation of the eustachian tubes that persists through all other treatments, the adenoids may be removed in a procedure called an adenoidectomy. Adenoidectomies relieve pressure on the eustachian tubes, allowing them to drain and can be of great assistance to recovery in children between four and eight.

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Home Care & Natural Remedies

Proper cold and flu care can assist in prevention of earaches. Vitamins A, C and E, garlic as well as Echinacea can be used to help prevent respiratory infections. If you plan on giving supplements to a child, please consult a pediatrician first.

Mineral oil dropped into the ear can relieve some of the pain of an ear infection, as can a warm towel applied to the outer ear. Eardrops containing infection-fighting garlic oil can be useful.

Children who are prone to ear infection should avoid contact with other sick children and avoid tobacco smoke. Infants should be breast fed to reduce their chances of suffering from ear infection: those children that nurse from a bottle while lying down suffer more from ear infections. Allergy medicines such as antihistamines and decongestants do not help prevent ear infections.

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Ear Infection