Ear Infection Symptoms, Causes & Risk Factors To Avoid

A

cute otitis media, an infection that occurs in the middle ear, is one of the most common ailments affecting young children. A majority of young children are known to have experienced this ear infection at least once prior to turning three. [1]

Even though anyone can develop this infection, it has been reported that babies who are between 6-15 months are more likely to get affected by it. As per the estimates, around one in four children end up suffering from this infection before the age of 10. [2]

Given the prevalence of this infection, it becomes imperative for one to be well aware of its symptoms, risk factors and also causes.


What Is An Ear Infection?

An infection in the ear canal or the middle part of the ear is referred to an ear infection. Infection in the ear canal or acute otitis externa is popularly known as swimmer’s ear. The infections occurring in the middle part of the ear are collectively known as Otitis Media. Mainly, there are 2 types of infections that can occur in this part of the ear –

Otitis Media with Effusion and Acute Otitis Media
Otitis media with effusion occurs as a result of the accumulation of fluid in the middle ear without the symptoms of infection. Infection resulting from an accumulation of fluid in the middle ear due to either a virus or bacteria is referred to as acute otitis media. [3]


What Are The Signs And Symptoms Of An Ear Infection?

Symptoms of an ear infection usually develop rapidly. The symptoms of ear infection that are commonly seen in children are:

  • Pain in the ear, particularly when lying down
  • Trouble in sleeping
  • Pulling or tugging at an ear
  • Difficulty in the hearing process
  • Trouble in responding to sounds
  • Excessive crying
  • Irritability
  • Loss of balance
  • Fever (100°F or higher)
  • A headache
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fluid drainage from the ear

Symptoms that can be commonly found in adults are:

  • Pain in the ear
  • Fluid drainage from the ear
  • Reduction in the ability to hear [4]


What Are The Causes Of Ear Infection?

Studies suggest that acute middle ear infections are usually associated with another infection such as flu, common cold or a sore throat. Bacteria and viruses responsible for these infections may end up finding their way to the throat, causing inflammation in the mucous membranes. Also, it can lead to increased fluid production in the ear.

Further, it can cause inflammation of the membranes that line up the ear and the eustachian tube (the tube connecting the middle part of the ear to the throat). The swelling obstructs drainage of the fluid discharged in the Eustachian tube and middle ear. This leads to accumulation of fluid in the middle ear that starts to push towards the eardrum. As a result, a person can experience pain and difficulty in hearing.

Children, particularly toddlers and babies have narrower and shorter Eustachian tube. The germs in the upper throat can therefore easily enter the middle ear. However, with age the eustachian tube develops and so does the immune system of young children, thereby lowering risks of infections in the middle ear among the children who are above the age of 7. [5]

Even the enlargement of adenoid, a tissue located towards the back of the throat, can cause a blockage in the Eustachian tube. When enlarged adenoids lead to frequent infections in the ear, removing them may give the person relief. [6]

What Is The Conventional Way Of Tackling Ear Infection?

It has been found that acute middle ear infections tend to cause a great deal of pain. That is the reason why the first course of action for tackling this infection primarily focuses on relieving pain. The health care specialist may recommend pain-relieving medications and medications that can work against fever.

Ear infections can either be caused by bacteria or virus that is why antibiotics are not known to be helpful in tackling the infection as they only work against bacterial infections. Moreover, the telltale signs of this infection tend to subside naturally. However, if, in case, fluid oozes from a child’s ear or the child is below 2 years of age and has been diagnosed with the infection, then there is a high chance that the infection is caused by bacteria. In such cases, antibiotics can prove to be effective for managing the infection.

Alternatively, individuals suffering from this infection can also use decongestant nasal drop. It helps in reducing the swelling whilst helping in opening up the blocked passages that connect the middle ear to the back of the throat. However, it is important to know that decongestants do not affect the infection. Usage of decongestant nasal drops is not recommended for more than a few days. [7]

If a person has already had more than 3 episodes of ear infection in a span of 6 months or more than 4 episodes in 4 within four years, then he or she may be recommended tympanostomy tubes. Studies suggest that placement of tympanostomy tubes helps in decreasing recurrent eat infections within 6 months. However, a common side effect of getting this tube is otorrhea. This is a condition in which a person suffers discharge from the infected ear. [8]


What Are The Risk Factors For Ear Infection?

Here are certain factors that put someone at the risk of an ear infection:

1. Age

It has been found that children between the age of 6 months and 2 years are more vulnerable to infections of the ear. That is because of the poorly developed size and shape of the eustachian tubes of little children. Also, because of their not-yet-developed immune system.

2. Poor Quality of Air

Individuals who are exposed to tobacco smoke are highly susceptible to developing infections in the ear. Furthermore, exposure to high levels of pollution can also increase the risk of a person getting this infection.

3. Seasonal Factors

Seasonal factors can also make a person susceptible to this type of infection. Infections of the ear usually occur during the fall and winter season. During this time of the year, ailments such as cold and flu are common. In fact, individuals who suffer from seasonal allergies are known to be at a higher risk of developing this infection during seasons when the pollen count in the air is high.

4. Infant Feeding

Babies who are breastfed are at a lower risk of getting the infection of the ear. On the other hand, bottle-fed babies tend to be more prone to ear infections, especially the ones who drink while lying down.

Group Child Care – Children who are cared for in settings that involve groups are also at a high risk of this ailment. That is because, in group settings, children are exposed to more infections such as common cold than at home. [9]


What Complications Can An Ear Infection Lead To?

It is rare for complications to arise due to an ear infection. However, if they do occur then they could lead to severe health-related problems. A majority of complications occur when the infection spreads to other parts of the ear or goes all the way to the head. Some of the problems that an ear infection can lead to are mastoiditis, a condition affecting the bones that are located at the back of the ear, labyrinthitis, the problem occurring in the inner part of the ear or meningitis, a complication that arises in the membranes that are around the brain and spinal cord. [10]

It has been found that frequent ear infections in children may lead to loss of hearing. Around the globe, approximately 141 million people are affected by mild hearing loss as a result of otitis media. The reports have found that of the affected population 2.3% were men while 1.8% were women. The loss of hearing can either be a result of the presence of fluid in the affected part of the ear or a rupture (tympanic membrane). [11]


Natural Way Of Tackling An Ear Infection

1. Garlic Oil

This remarkably beneficial oil can be used for tackling an ear infection. The person suffering from the infection should tilt their head so that the few drops of oil can be poured in the ear canal. In order to fight the infection, garlic oil could be put in the ear canal every few hours. Covering the ear with a cotton ball can avert the oil from draining out. Alternatively, one can create a blend of garlic oil and astragalus oil for dealing with the infection. Astragalus oil helps in enhancing the function of the immune system. [12]

2. White Vinegar

This is another amazing kitchen remedy that works effectively against the infection affecting the ear. Just mix 50% white vinegar with 50% water. Apply 4-5 drops of the resulting blend into the troubled ear. Repeat this method through the day to notice positive results. [13]

3. Warm Compress

This inexpensive remedy can prove to be highly effective in providing relief from the pain caused by an ear infection. Putting a warm compress on the affected ear can help a person get relief from the pain. One can use a heated wheat bag for this natural method. Apart from that, one can try filling up a sock with rice, heating it in the microwave for just a minute and using it as a warm compress.

The ear is a highly sensitive body part that can get easily irritated. It is best to make use of natural ingredients than chemicals such as bleach to fight off the ear infection. [14]


How Is An Ear Infection Diagnosed?

First and foremost, the doctor will ask the person suffering to share the details about the symptoms that he or she has experienced. The doctor will then use a device, called otoscope to check inside the eardrum and look for possible sign indicative of an infection. Redness in the eardrum and fluid buildup are common signs of ear infection. Fluid can either be thick in texture or thin and is usually present right behind the eardrum. This fluid limits the movement of the eardrum. The otoscope comes with a buffer that is used for blowing air in the ear to check if there is any movement of the eardrum.

Alternatively, the doctor may use a tympanometer, a device that checks the middle ear to see if there is fluid accumulation. [15]


What Tips To Follow To Reduce The Risk Of Developing Ear Infections?

To lower their child’s chances of developing an ear infection parents should ensure that the child receives all the vaccinations as per the schedule, especially the pneumococcal vaccine. Parents should protect their children from smoking environments, as passive smoking is a risk factor. They should try not to feed the child while he or she is lying on the back. Along with that, feeding a baby breast milk instead of store-bought formula milk can also lower the risk of this infection. Lastly, parents should keep a healthy child away from sick children. This will help the parents safeguard their children from infections that can cause an ear infection. [16]


When Should You See A Doctor For An Ear Infection?

A majority of ear infection cases become better just within a few days. But if the signs of the infection do not get better after 2-3 days then one should consult a doctor. Also, it is recommended to seek medical care if the person experiences severe pain or there is fluid discharge from the ear. Lastly, those suffering from health problems like cystic fibrosis or have a congenital heart should also consult a doctor for this infection, as these issues can lead to complications. [17]


Conclusion

Now that you know about ear infections, you should try to be on a lookout for these symptoms. Also, try to avoid the risk factors that increase the likelihood of such infections. Not only will it help you ward off the painful symptoms but also safeguard you from the health complications that an ear infection can lead to. Parents should try to limit the exposure of their children to the risk factors that can cause this infection.