Ear Infection


Ear infection is mainly a childhood complaint although older people do get it too. It is often lasts for just a few days although some attacks may become chronic. When ear infection is suspected, it is best to see a health practitioner who can examine the ear, diagnose the problem and decide on the correct treatment.


Long description

The ear is such a small space in the body yet infection can be painful. When we speak of ear infection, we refer to infection of two parts of the ear. Otitis externa is the technical name for infection of the ear canal which is part of the outer ear. The other part of the ear which commonly gets infected is the middle ear. Infection here is called otitis media. Otitis externa can affect people of any age while otitis media affects children more.



The symptoms of ear infection depend on the location of the infection. Otitis externa (sometimes called “swimmers’ ear”) causes ear discharge and itch in the ear canal. Sufferers do not usually complain of pain. The ear discharge can be smelly and abundant, particularly if the infection becomes chronic. The characteristic picture of otitis media is one of a child complaining of earache. The pain might be so intense that the child is irritable and tearful – especially if the sufferer is a child too young to articulate his problem. The earache may be followed by ear discharge However, discharge is not always present. There may simply be fever and pain. If otitis media produces fluid trapped in the middle ear, the sufferer may complain of difficulty hearing.



Swimmers may have problems with repeated bouts of otitis externa. Another group of sufferers are people who have a skin condition called seborrhoeic eczema. This inflammatory condition of the skin may also affect the skin of the ear canal and predispose to infection. Having your ear syringed overenthusiastically by a health professional may result in otitis externa. As will trying to clean wax out of the ear using an instrument (even a fingernail) that pierces the canal and leads to infection.

Instead otitis media is caused by infection with viruses or bacteria. Otitis media may be a stand-alone infection or it may be part of a bigger picture as happens in measles or even following a cold. Ear infections usually last for a few days but some people are unfortunate and have infection persisting for several weeks. In otitis media, this causes a build-up of catarrh in the middle ear. It takes time for this fluid to drain and there may be difficulty hearing.



There is some disagreement among doctors about the pros and cons of treating otitis media. Usually the infection goes away by itself. Viruses may be responsible for some infections and antibiotics do not kill them. However, otitis media can be severe. Mastoiditis is a rare but serious complication of otitis media. The mastoid bone is the bony lump you feel just behind the ear. If that gets infected, it can lead to infection of the meninges – the tissue layers which cover the brain – and that is a potential calamity. Young children under 2 years with otitis media in both ears and people who are very unwell are more likely to be treated with antibiotics.


Bacteria and sometimes fungi cause otitis externa. This infection of the ear canal responds well to antibiotic ear drops. Steroids are often combined with the ear drops and they help the inflammation in the canal.



Wearing caps or inserting earplugs while swimming helps prevent otitis externa. Earwax is a normal secretion of the body and should be left in peace. Wax causing deafness because it is blocking the ear canal is the only reason to remove it. Wax softeners can help ease it out. If that fails then a nurse could gently syringe it out. Using Kirby grips and cotton wool bud tips to remove wax could lead to injury of the ear canal and this in turn could result in otitis externa.



It is difficult to prevent otitis media. The body and disease are great mysteries. Why a virus or bacterium should invade the ear of one individual and not another’s is still unknown. Otitis media is more common in children so ensuring they get their routine vaccinations will help reduce the number of infections. Children exposed to smoking, fed with formula milk and attend nursery school are also more likely to get otitis media.

In: General Medicine,