A middle ear infection, also called acute otitis media, is usually a viral or bacterial infection of the middle ear. Your middle ear sits behind your eardrum and is an air-filled space. Children
tend to get ear infections more than adults. In fact, by the time they turn three years old, three or more children will develop acute otitis media. In some instances, it can take over a month or two for the infections to go away.
If there's fluid in the ear that's been there for a long time, it can increase the risk of hearing loss which at a young age can impact how your child's normal language and speech develops.
Ear infections are normally caused by bacteria beginning after your child develops a cold, sore throat or another upper respiratory infection. If your child has a bacterial upper respiratory infection, the bacteria can also spread to their middle ear. If it’s a virus-causing upper respiratory infection like a cold, the bacteria may first be attracted to the microbe-friendly environment and then result in a secondary infection as it moves to the middle ear. The infection causes the fluid to build up behind your child's eardrum.
Parts of the Ear
Your ear has three main parts — the middle ear, outer ear and inner ear.
Ear infections occur in your middle ear which is located between your inner ear and eardrum. You have three tiny bones in your middle ear known as the incus, malleus and stapes. They transmit sound vibrations to your inner ear from your eardrum.
Your outer ear (pinna) is the ear's curved flap that leads down to your earlobe and your ear canal that starts at the ear's opening and works down to your eardrum. It's basically, all the parts you see on the outside of your ear. Your eardrum divides your middle and outer ear.
You have the labyrinth inside your inner ear which helps you keep your balance. A part of your labyrinth, the cochlea, converts sound vibrations into electrical signals from your middle ear. The signals are then carried by the auditory nerve to your brain from the cochlea.
Are Ear Infections Contagious?
Although ear infections aren't necessarily contagious, ear infections triggered by viral and bacterial infections can spread between people. There are three ear infection types:
1. Labyrinthitis: Inner ear inflammation that infection sometimes causes.
2. External ear infection: This is known as "swimmer's ear."
3. Middle ear infection: Also called otitis media is a common ear infection type, particularly in children.
Because bacteria or viruses cause ear infections often due to the flu or common cold, they can be extremely contagious. People transmit them back and forth or they spread surface to surface.
People spread the droplets of influenza when they sneeze, talk or cough. If you inhale these droplets or they end up in your mouth, you may contract the virus, increasing your risk of ear infection.
Other Parts of the Ear
Ear infections may involve other neighboring parts of your ear. For instance, you have an Eustachian tube that connects your middle ear to the upper part of your throat. It supplies your middle ear with fresh air, drains fluid and keeps a steady level of air pressure between your ear and nose.
Near your Eustachian tubes are your adenoids. These are small tissue pads that sit above your throat and in back of your nose. Immune system cells mainly make up your adenoids. They trap bacteria from entering your mouth which helps fight off infection.
Ear infections are often painful due to a buildup of fluids and inflammation in your middle ear.
Since ear infections usually go away by themselves, treatment might start off with monitoring the problem and managing any pain. Severe cases of ear infection or ear infection in infants usually require antibiotics. Hearing issues and other complications may result from:
Long-term ear infection problems
Persistent fluid in your middle ear
It's harder for your child to hear sounds when there's fluid in their ears due to conductive hearing loss. It's like trying to hear underwater. That's what your child hears, possibly.
Although some kids with an ear infection don't have any changes to their hearing, others could have a temporary hearing loss. Once the fluid goes away from their middle ear, it restores their hearing. With repeated ear infections, however, there can be permanent damage. So, it’s crucial you obtain treatment for ear infections immediately.
When there's fluid in the middle ear without infection, this presents a different issue because symptoms of fever and pain aren't typically present. Therefore, weeks or months can go by without you even knowing there's a problem. Your child, during this time, could miss out on essential information that influences language and speech development.
Signs of Ear Infection
Children tend to get ear infections before learning how to talk. A few things you can look for if your child isn't old enough to let you know their ear hurts are:
Ear pulling or tugging
Ear draining fluid
Crying and fussiness
Problems or clumsiness with balance
Fever (particularly with younger kids and infants)
Trouble responding to quiet sounds or hearing
Symptoms of Ear Infection
When fluid remains trapped behind your child's eardrum after their ear infection goes away, it’s called Otis media with effusion (OME). Children with OME might not have any symptoms; however, a doctor can see the fluid behind their eardrum using a special tool.
Ear infection symptoms to look for include:
Pulling or tugging at ears
Nausea and vomiting
Loss of balance
Clear, bloody or yellow discharge from ears
Ear Infection Treatment
Your child's doctor will perform a physical exam on your child and take down their medical history before deciding on ear infection treatment. The doctor will look at their eardrum and outer ear during the exam using an otoscope (lighted instrument) to check for swelling, redness, fluid and pus.
They may also perform a tympanometry test used to determine if the middle ear is functioning as it should be. The doctor uses a device for this test that they put inside the ear canal which makes the eardrum vibrate by changing the pressure. The doctor measures any vibration changes and documents them on a graph to interpret the results.
Doctors treat ear infections in numerous ways. They will base treatment on how old your child is, their medical history and their health. They'll consider:
Your child's tolerance to antibiotics
The infection's severity
Your preference or opinion
Depending on how severe the infection is, the doctor might tell you to monitor the infection to see if it goes away on its own and to treat the pain. A common pain treatment is ibuprofen, which reduces the pain and fever.
The doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the ear infection if it doesn't go away on its own. Your child needs to take the entire medication even if the infection goes away. If there's fluid buildup in the ear, treatment may include:
Waiting and monitoring to see if the fluid goes away. Ear fluid, in some cases, goes away within several months
Performing surgery for repeated ear infections where the doctor puts a tube in the child's ear
If your child is experiencing ear infections (or you are), consult with a doctor right away about the best form of treatment. Also, make sure to schedule a follow-up appointment after treatment to ensure the ear infection is completely gone.