An ear infection - also known as otitis media - is an infection of the middle ear. The middle ear is an air-filled cavity that sits behind the eardrum and is responsible for transmitting sound from the outer ear to the inner ear.
While some ear infections will go away on their own, medical attention may be needed. You should see a doctor if symptoms persist for longer than 48 hours, the ear pain is severe, you or your child experiences a fever over 102.2 F, if the child experiencing symptoms is less than 6 months old, or if you notice any discharge coming from the ear. Children who suffer from recurring infections or persistent fluid in the middle ear should receive regular checkups to avoid any damage to their hearing or other complications.
Symptoms of an Ear Infection
Ear infections will usually begin to cause symptoms shortly after infection. Common symptoms of a middle ear infection in children include:
- Ear pain/ ear ache
- Hearing loss
- Fluid drainage
Young children (between 1-3 years old) may experience additional symptoms such as:
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of appetite
Although it is rare, adults may also experience ear infections. Symptoms in adults include:
- Ear pain
- Hearing loss
- Fluid drainage
Ear Infection Causes
Ear infections are caused by bacteria and viruses finding their way into the middle ear. These infections are often secondary infections, after a common cold, flu, or sinus infection causes swelling in the nasal passages and the eustachian tubes - tubes that run from the middle ear to the back of the throat that regulates and refresh the air in the middle ear.
When the nasal passages or eustachian tubes become swollen, fluid may become trapped in the middle ear. This fluid buildup in the ear canal can become infected and, in turn, infect the inner ear.
Ear Infection Risk Factors
There are several factors that may increase your or your child’s likelihood of developing an ear infection. These conditions include:
- Age: Young children are at greater risk of ear infections due to the ongoing development of their eustachian tubes and weakened immune system.
- Feeding: Babies who are fed via a bottle while lying down - as opposed to breastfeeding - are at an increased risk of developing an ear infection.
- Child care: Children who attend daycare or group care are at an increased risk of developing respiratory infections, sore throats, and ear infections.
- Air quality: Environmental factors such as allergens in the air (like pollen, mold, or pet dander), smog, secondhand smoke, and other irritants can increase your risk of ear infections, as they can also lead to the inflammation of your sinus cavity and nasal passages.
- Cleft palate: Children born with a cleft palate may also have muscular and skeletal differences that make it difficult for the eustachian tubes to drain. This can lead to frequent fluid buildup and frequent ear infections.
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