Your ears are one of the most important sensory organs of your body and yet you manage to neglect it the most. They do their job in silence and hardly vie for your attention, but when they do, they do it with a vengeance. Ear infections can be painful and cause much trouble if you end up having one.
The ear is divided into three parts — the external ear, middle ear and the inner ear. An infection can take hold in any of these regions of the ear
External ear infection
The external ear infection is usually limited to the outer ear and is an outcome of a bacterial or fungal invasion. Some common reasons of external ear infection are:
- Wax accumulation: ‘Some amount of wax buildup in the ear is natural, but if excessive wax accumulation happens over a period of time it serves to be a perfect breeding ground for the bacteria or fungus to grow and thrive,’ says Dr Agarwal. If neglected, the wax build up can lead to a condition called wax granuloma wherein the eardrum can extrude through the ear tube causing pain and watery discharge from the ears. Know more about the wax removal techniques.
- Otitis externa: This external ear infection is very common with swimmers, so much so that it’s also known as Swimmer’s ears. Otitis externa usually happens if any liquid or fluid substance enters the ear. This fluid gives the exact environment to some bacteria, which is already present inside the ear, to grow and give rise to an infection. It can also trap bacteria due to excess use of earphones or if you use cotton swabs. Excessive wax buildup along with fluid accumulation inside the ear can also lead to the condition. ‘Though the infection can be painful and troublesome, the good news is that it might not cause any permanent hearing loss like other ear infections. But an immediate treatment or consultation with an ENT specialist is highly recommended,’ says Dr Agarwal. Also read about causes that can lead to ear infections.
Middle ear infection
Most of the middle ear infections, also called as otitis media, happen due to common cold or allergies in the nasal or the throat area. ‘Usually a nasal allergy or an allergy in the throat can get into the Eustachian tube that connects the throat and the middle ear. Viruses and bacteria can at times reach the middle ear through the tube and cause an infection,’ says Dr Agarwal. The Eustachian tube is protected from the external environment by the eardrum.
Also they are more common in infants and babies than in adults. Bottlefed babies can end up having a middle ear infection if the milk leaks from the mouth while taking a feed and ends up into the ears.
A middle ear infection can range from being an acute one to a chronic one.
- Acute middle ear infections: ‘It is usually characterized by acute pain, irritation and probably a low grade fever. This kind of infection is usually of a short duration and leaves soon after proper care ensured by a doctor,’ says Dr Agarwal.
- Chronic middle ear infection: ‘It can be of a little severe type that can keep bothering a person for weeks or months at end. A chronic middle ear infection is characterized by pain, irritability and discharge through the ears,’ informs Dr Agarwal. A chronic ear infection can either result in:
a) Fluid being filled in the Eustachian tube
b) Perforation in the eardrums
c) Erosion of the ear bones
‘In case of a chronic ear infection, medical attention becomes a necessity as the infection can be fatal if ignored. It can also result to a surgery or in worst case a hearing loss,’ says Dr Agarwal. Also read 12 signs of tinnitus or ringing in the ears.
Internal ear infection
Though an internal ear infection or infection of the labyrinth is very rare but at times it could happen due to a viral attack that enters through the blood stream. If it is ignored for too long it can lead to vertigo, a part of the inner ear that controls balance may be inflamed triggering the same, or sudden hearing loss too.
‘An ear infection is usually caused due to a bacterial or fungal attack and is more common in children than in adults. In general, it can give rise to acute pain and cause a lot of disturbance on the onset,’ says Dr Vikas Agarwal, a Mumbai based ENT surgeon.
Whether it is an external, middle or internal ear infection, some of the common symptoms that one can suffer from following an ear infection are:
- Acute pain in the infected ear
- Occasional decreasing in hearing
- Discharge from the ears
- Headaches along with ear pain
- In case of babies apart from a bout of crying refusal of a feed, constant tugging to the ears are common symptoms
Here is detailed information on 8 symptoms of ear infections in babies.
If the infection has not gone deep inside then some minute treatments and procedures can take care of it. But if it has ruined most part of the ear internally then a surgical intervention is needed.
Some of the common treatments and procedures to treat ear infections are as follows:
Cleaning of the wax:
If wax buildup in your ears gives rise to an infection, a cleaning needs to be done to address the problem. ‘This type of professional cleaning is done by the doctor under a head light with specialized micro instruments. Many practitioners also practice the syringing technique to clean the wax but it is highly condemned,’ says Dr Agarwal. If you are cleaning the wax on your own with an ear bud make sure that you don’t push the bud further and clean only the external part. ‘If you keep inserting the ear bud deep inside, chances are you can push the wax over the eardrum with the bud causing more trouble,’ says Dr Agarwal.
Using ear drops:
Sometimes if a professional cleaning is not needed then some ear drops might be suggested to help dissolve the wax and address the infection. ‘Many OTC ear drops are also available to address the problem of wax buildup. Usually with use of drops the infection settles with a week’s time,’ informs Dr Agarwal. If it doesn’t then probably you should visit an ENT doctor for further investigations.
Sometimes surgeries like the following might be suggested to treat an uncontrolled ear infection:
Tympanoplasty: ‘If a middle ear infection has made certain perforations on the ear drums of the ear, then a thympanoplasty is done wherein surgically a new ear drum is prepared for the patient to counter hearing loss and fight the infection,’ says Dr Agarwal.
Mastoidectomy: In case the ear infection erodes the bones in the ear leading to a condition called cholesteatoma then an immediate surgical intervention is necessitated. ‘In mastoidectomy the diseases or infected part of the mastoid bone which is present behind the ears, is drilled out to stop the infection from reaching the brain. Else it could lead to a permanent hearing loss in the individual,’ says Dr Agarwal.
A surgery to address ear infection can be an OPD procedure or might need a day’s stay in the hospital; following proper after care instruction provided by the doctor can help one get back to normalcy pretty soon.
The common preventive measures include -
Keep your ears clean: But don’t mess up too much while cleaning it with an ear bud at home. Go for a professional cleanup at least once a year to remove the wax developed in your ears. If you get fluids in your ears while using a hairspray or during the rains or while swimming make sure to clean the outer ear with a clean cloth to avoid bacteria or fungal growth which can lead to an infection. Avoid excessive use of earphones and keep the decibel levels low. Do not put in cotton swabs inside your ears as that can lead to trapping of bacteria within.
Don’t ignore a warning sign: If you suffer from any of the symptoms of ear infection it is wise to get tested by an ENT specialist. ‘Sometimes even a small fungal infection can give rise to more severe condition that can call for a surgery too,’ says Dr Agarwal.
The content has been verified by Dr Vikas Agarwal, a Mumbai based ENT surgeon.