Ear Infections

Per research by the U.S. National Library of Medicine, 75 percent of children will have suffered at least one ear infection by their third birthday. The Cleveland Clinic, meanwhile, found that approximately a quarter of children suffer from repeated or chronic ear infections. Although they can affect adults, they're an incredibly common ailment among children, so much so that they account for over 50 percent of all pediatrician visits in the country.

But what are ear infections, exactly? And more importantly, how are they treated? Let's talk about that.

What Causes Ear Infections?

Ear infections don't usually develop on their own. Rather, they're often the result of a complication associated with another illness, such as a sinus infection or upper respiratory tract infection. They can also be caused by a fungal infection in the ear, or by severe trauma to the ear.

Smoking, rapid changes in air pressure, allergies, or excess fluid in the ear also tend to be contributing factors.  Risk factors such as family proclivity to ear infections and chronic illness also increase your chances of developing one, though they don't necessarily guarantee that you will.

How Are Ear Infections Categorized?

There are three main categories of ear infection, and four subtypes, based on location and symptoms, respectively.

Major Types of Ear Infections

Otitis Externa refers to an ear infection between the outer ear and eardrum. It can be caused by improper cleaning or excessive water exposure. People commonly call this type of ear infection Swimmer's Ear, and with good reason — it tends to be a relatively common ailment among swimmers.

Otitis Media infections are located within the inner or middle ear. Caused by blockage of the eustachian tubes — the organs that connect the nasal cavity and middle ear —  this is the most common type of ear infection afflicting children. 

Otitis Interna occurs within the inner ear. Calling Otitis Interna an ear infection is actually something of a misnomer, as the inflammation is rarely caused by a virus or bacterium.

Ear Infection Subtypes

Acute ear infections have a rapid onset. Common symptoms include inflammation, severe itching, and redness.

Recurrent ear infections infect the same part of the ear on multiple occasions.

Effusive ear infections occur because of fluid buildup. They usually don't come with any other signs of infection, though they often follow an acute ear infection.

Chronic ear infections do not resolve themselves without treatment. Though they are sometimes less severe than other types of ear infections, they can cause lasting damage if ignored.

How Do I Know If I Have an Ear Infection?

An ear infection generally manifests as a combination of any of the following symptoms. 
  • Throbbing ear pain
  • Fever
  • A feeling of 'fullness' in the ear
  • Ear pressure, often to an uncomfortable degree
  • Pus or fluid discharge from the ear
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Loss of balance, or vertigo
  • Headaches
woman in pain from otitis media ear infection

What Makes Children So Susceptible to Ear Infections?

The main reason ear infections tend to occur more frequently in children than in adults is tied to biology. The eustachian tubes in younger individuals tend to be horizontal, becoming vertical as they age. Because of this, when infection or illness causes fluid buildup in a child's eustachian tubes, that fluid is less likely to properly drain.

How Are Ear Infections Prevented?

There are a few things you can do to reduce the risk of an ear infection in both children and adults.
  • Ensure a proper diet and exercise. Eat plenty of fruits, vegetables, high-quality protein, and whole grains. Reduce the amount of milk and sugar to as great a degree as possible.
  • Stay hydrated. You should ideally never be far from a glass of water.
  • Consume essential fatty acids, either through foods like fish or flaxseeds, or via vitamin supplements.
  • If you're bottle feeding an infant, consider using a non-dairy formula. If you're breastfeeding an infant, ensure the mother avoids consuming allergens like milk. 
  • Never feed an infant while they're lying flat on their back.
  • Avoid irritants such as cigarette smoke.
  • Don't use cotton swabs to clean your ears. Ever. Just don't do it. 

What's Involved in Treating an Ear Infection?

The first step when a child is suffering from an ear infection is to take them to either a pediatrician or an ear, nose, and throat specialist. Pay attention to your child's body language, as infants and children suffering from ear infections often begin tugging on their ears and grow restless as symptoms grow more severe. They may also be more irritable or agitated.
Whatever you do, do not ignore it and hope it will resolve on its own.

An untreated ear infection in younger individuals can cause permanent damage to the ear, including forming scar tissue over the eardrum or deforming the ossicles, small bones that play an essential role in hearing. 
Ear drops and over-the-counter medication can help reduce the severity of symptoms and quicken the healing process, though more severe cases may also require antibiotics. Most acute ear infections have an inflammatory phase that lasts approximately three days, then clear up in approximately four weeks, at most. Note that since not all ear infections are viral or bacterial in nature, medication isn't always the correct route — that's why it's so important to visit a physician.

In addition to your doctor's recommendations, there are a few ways you can mitigate the pain while your ear infection heals.

Onion poultice. Chop an onion, and simmer it in a quarter cup of water for a few minutes. Once you've done that, wrap the onion in something like cheesecloth, let it cool a bit, then place it over your ear for up to five minutes. Repeat as necessary.

Dry your ears regularly. Use a hairdryer on the lowest setting, or a clean, dry cloth to keep moisture out of the ear canal. The hairdryer has the added benefit of applying a bit of heat, which can also be soothing.

Hot water bottle. Wrap a hot water bottle in a towel, and hold it against your ear for as long as necessary.