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Ear infections are a common cause of earaches or ear pain. In fact, they are so common that it’s estimated children will have at least one before they reach age ten.

While young people are the most susceptible to ear infections, adults can also be at risk. And although most cases often resolve themselves after a few days, we’d always recommend seeing your GP or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist to be on the safe side.

Boots Hearingcare looks at some of the most crucial information surrounding ear infections, including effective treatments and preventative measures…

What are the main types of ear infection?

Otitis Externa

This is an outer ear infection affecting the ear canal, which goes from the ear opening to the eardrum. An outer ear infection occurs when water enters the ear canal and becomes trapped there through wax build-up, creating an ideal environment for bacteria to thrive. Swimmer’s ear is a good example. The body responds to the infection with inflammation, pain, redness, and sometimes a fever.

Otitis Media

This is an infection of the middle ear, caused either by bacteria or a virus. The condition can be a result of the tubes inside the ears becoming clogged with mucus and fluid. Middle ear infections are often excruciating, accompanied by high fever, hearing difficulty, nausea, and vomiting. The fluid build-up can also lead to hearing loss, as it prevents sound from getting through. 
  • Of the two, this type of ear infection is much more common, particularly in very young children and infants. When babies and young children pull or slap at their ears, a middle ear infection is quite possible. Also, most middle ear infections are linked to an upper respiratory infection or allergy. Around 40% of cases are thought to be caused by bacteria, the rest by a virus.

What are the other symptoms of a middle ear infection (otitis media)?

Some of the most common middle ear infection symptoms include:
  • Ear pain, often throbbing 
  • Fever 
  • Pressure or a feeling of fullness in the ear 
  • Pus from the ear 
  • Hearing difficulty in the affected ear 
  • Nausea and vomiting
Not all these need to be present for a confirmed diagnosis of middle ear infection.

How many types of middle ear infections (otitis media) are there?

There are four main types of otitis media:
  • Acute otitis media: This tends to come on rapidly and is characterised by swelling and redness in the ear behind and around the eardrum. Ear pain, fever, and partial or complete hearing loss often occur as a result of fluid or mucus caught in the middle ear.
  • Recurrent acute otitis media: Repeated episodes of the above condition.
  • Otitis media with Effusion (OME): The presence of fluid in the middle ear without any signs or symptoms of acute infection. This can happen when the infection clears up but mucus and fluid continue to accumulate. Such build-ups make the ear feel full, reducing your ability to hear clearly. Most of the time, though, OMEs resolve themselves on their own.
  • Chronic media with Effusion (OME): OME is classified as chronic when middle ear effusion has been present for at least three months.
Because there are so many types of middle ear infection, it’s vital that you get your ear-related symptoms checked out as quickly as possible.

Why do children get middle ear infections (otitis media) so often?

One of the reasons infants and young children get otitis media so often is connected to the eustachian tube. Because the eustachian tube is more horizontal than it is in adults, it prevents fluid to flow smoothly. When it isn't working properly, mucus is unable to drain from behind the eardrum. Instead, it stays stuck and causes pain and pressure. This situation often leads to infection. As children get older, the eustachian tube becomes more vertical and begins to drain better.

How can you prevent middle ear infections (otitis media)?

The key to preventing otitis media is to limit the build-up of fluid. Proper diet can play an essential role in reducing the risks. Food allergens, such as cow's milk and sugar, lead to excess mucus and fluid. Eliminating these foods from the diet can be helpful. 

Reducing exposure to environmental allergens, such as secondhand smoke, is also essential. Cigarette smoke creates an environment for bacteria and virus to thrive.

What’s the prognosis and treatment available for middle ear infections (otitis media)?

With proper treatment, the prognosis for middle ear infections is very good. Although it’s essential to take all ear infections and ear pain seriously. A doctor, pediatrician or ENT can professionally diagnose otitis media; they have specialist instruments to look inside the ear. If you have an acute middle ear infection, your eardrum will be very red. Also, if there’s puss present in the inner ear as a result of infection, the eardrum tends to bulge forward slightly. This bulging leads to an increased risk of eardrum perforation.

To protect the eardrum from rupturing and speed up the healing process, your doctor may prescribe medication(s). Alternatively, they may recommend over-the-counter or prescription ear drops to help relieve your symptoms. In more serious cases, antibiotics may be necessary to clear the infection. While the acute inflammatory phase lasts about two to three days, the entire healing process takes about two to four weeks. Medications, when prescribed appropriately, can shorten the infection’s duration.

Make sure to visit your GP or local ENT if you have persistent ear pain or hearing loss. Be especially alert for signs of middle ear infections with babies and young children, who often pull on their ears when suffering from ear pain. If your child shows signs of ear infection, don’t delay; consult your doctor as soon as possible.

As a large percentage of otitis media is viral, antibiotic therapies aren’t always the appropriate course of treatment. Your doctor can determine whether the likelihood of bacterial or viral infection is higher based on your symptoms.

Are they any home remedies for middle ear infections (otitis media)?

There are several things you can do to relieve symptoms related to middle ear infection. For example, increasing your water intake helps flush bacteria and viruses out of your body.

Remember, home remedies can be used to relieve pain and help ease anxiety, but you should never delay seeking medical attention in extreme circumstances; for instance, if a fever doesn’t subside or your ear continues to hurt. Although home remedies can be helpful, they don’t replace the need for a doctor’s visit.

Can your diet have an affect on an ear infection?

Diet plays a vital role in relieving symptoms of otitis media. Positive dietary changes can help alleviate pain and prevent recurring infections.
Encourage your body to clear a middle ear infection by strengthening your immune system with:
  • Fresh fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and high-quality protein, all of which will bolster natural defences.
  • Plenty of clean, good-quality drinking water to thin mucus secretions.
  • Essential fatty acids found in cold-water fish, flaxseeds, and flaxseed oil – useful in reducing inflammation or allergens that are often present. Breastfeeding mothers should certainly avoid common allergens, such as cow’s milk.
It’s also a good idea to switch bottle-fed babies to a non-dairy formula, with your doctor’s supervision.

How to avoid ear infections altogether

There are certain preventive measures that can reduce the risk of developing an ear infection. You should:
  • Not bottle-feed children while they’re lying on their backs. Keep them at a 30-degree angle or more to prevent fluid accumulation in the eustachian tube.
  • Not smoke or expose yourself (or your child) to second-hand smoke.
  • Avoid using cotton swabs, as they pack wax into the ear canal.
If an infection has already set in, keep symptoms at bay by:
  • Not allowing moisture into your ears.
  • Applying heat locally for pain relief. Try using a hot water bottle wrapped in a towel or blow a hairdryer onto the affected ear.

What are the potential complications of middle ear infections (otitis media)?

If middle ear infection occurs frequently, it can lead to severe consequences. The formation of scar tissue on the eardrum is one such complication. The scar tissue often brings with it hearing difficulty and, eventually, ruptured eardrums. If the tiny ear bones – called ossicles – in your inner ear are damaged or deformed, this can cause hearing loss.
The first step to taking care of your ears is understanding how best to deal with infections. By familiarising yourself with the above information, maintaining good ear health promises to be a great deal easier.

The high potential for complications makes an ear infection diagnosis by a doctor critical. Never disregard ear pain or hearing loss and consult a specialist immediately. Start by booking your FREE hearing check with one of our experts at a Boots store local to you.

The high potential for complications makes a diagnosis by a doctor critical. Never disregard ear pain or hearing loss, and consult an ear, nose, and throat specialist immediately.
Find a Boots Hearingcare store near you
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