Ear infections are more common in children than in adults but can occur in both. At The Urgency Room, we have board certified emergency physicians that can diagnose and treat ear infections in both children and in adults. When you’re in a hurry and want your ear infection treated quickly, turn to one of our three convenient Twin Cities locations.
Ear Infection Basics
There are two types of ear infections. Otitis media is an infection of the inner ear. Otitis externa is an infection of the skin and tissues of the outer ear. These are two different problems that require unique treatments.
This is most commonly a bacterial infection (though can also be caused by fungus) of the skin and tissue of the outer ear. Sometimes allergic and autoimmune processes can also cause this. The ear canal produces wax, which provides a natural protective layer over the skin in the ear. Processes that disrupt this natural barrier such as cleaning the ear with cotton swabs, wearing hearing aids, ear plugs or ear phones put people at risk of developing a bacterial infection. Swimming also is a risk factor because the water disrupts the natural protective layer and then bacteria from the water enter the ear.
Symptoms of otitis externa can range from itchiness or minor pain when the ear is touched to much more severe pain, swelling of the ear canal or drainage from the ear. In more severe cases, the ear may be visibly red and swollen. People with diabetes are at risk of developing a much more serious infection called malignant otitis externa. This is an emergency and must be treated quickly with antibiotics.
Treating an Outer Ear Infection (otitis externa)
When treating an outer ear infection, the goal is to reduce your pain and treat the bacterial infection. Tylenol and ibuprofen are both good medications to reduce pain from an ear infection. For most cases, topical antibacterial drops are sufficient to treat the infection. For more serious infections, sometimes oral antibiotics are prescribed.
Preventing Ear Infections
You can prevent future earaches by taking proper care of your ears. To help avoid infection, do not clean your ear canals with cotton swabs. Although ear wax may seem unpleasant, it protects the ear from water, infections, and bacteria. Cleaning the ear too much can lead to infection and irritate the ear canal.
Otitis media is an infection of the inner ear. About 11% of people per year will develop an inner ear infection. The majority of these people will be children. Otitis media is an infection caused by bacteria or viruses. Often times, an inner ear infection occurs as a complication of a cold or flu. The virus causes inflammation in the ears and sinuses, which are connected and fluid accumulates in the inner ear. The fluid then can become infected.
Symptoms of an inner ear infection
The number one symptom of an inner ear infection is ear pain. Other symptoms include hearing loss, ear fullness, drainage from the ear or fever. Ear pain may present as fussiness, decreased feeding or poor sleep in young children.
More severe cases of otitis media can result in rupture of the eardrum. This will show itself by drainage from the ear. Hearing loss is a complication of recurrent or prolonged ear infections.
Treatment of Inner Ear Infections
Treatment for otitis media depends on your age and the severity of infection. Some ear infections are caused by bacteria and some are caused by viruses. Also, a certain percentage of ear infections will go away on their own without antibiotics. The doctor will review your symptoms and do an exam to determine the severity of your infection. For some patients your doctor will recommend a wait and see approach. This involves treating the pain with Tylenol or ibuprofen and rechecking the ear in 2-3 days, or sooner if worsening. If symptoms are more severe, your doctor may recommend starting an antibiotic right away.
Prevention of Inner Ear Infections
Vaccination against influenza and pneumococcus prevents ear infections in young children. Good hand washing and covering one’s cough will prevent the spread of viruses that can set you down the road to an ear infection. Breastfeeding, especially exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life has been shown to decrease ear infections in young infants.
When to Seek Treatment for an Ear Infection
We recommend coming to see one of our physicians if you are experiencing ear pain, especially if the pain lasts beyond the 36-48 hour period. The Urgency Room is here to help treat your ear infection and get you feeling better fast.
Ear infections can be extremely painful and frustrating. Following these instructions will help you avoid getting an infection, and guide you in treating your ears if an infection occurs. If treated correctly, you should be feeling better quickly.