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How to Know if You Have an Ear Infection?

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Having nagging ear pain? Suddenly have a weird itch inside the ear which won’t go away? Do your ears start ringing or paining abruptly? In addition to the pain, your child or you now have a fever also. This might just be due to an ear infection. 

Ear infections are very common and can happen all around the year. It can happen at any age and is especially difficult to identify in toddlers because they can’t bear the pain and neither can they tell us their problems. In most cases, antibiotics are the best solution. 

But what causes ear infections and how can we deal with them? To learn all about this read what our ear nose and throat experts have to say. 

What is an Ear Infection?

An ear infection is usually bacterial or viral. It grows mostly around the middle ear, or the place behind your eardrums, and sometimes in the inner or outer ear. Infections mostly clear up on their own unless they involve a lot of pain, inflammation or fluid buildup.

Based on the extent of the infection, they can be classified as chronic or acute. 

  • Acute infections are painful but short-lived. 
  • Whereas, chronic infections may recur many times and cause damage to the area where it has been infected. 

What are the Types of Ear Infections?

Broadly we can categorize ear infections under the following heads: 

  • Otitis Externa: Here there is redness and inflammation of the external ear canal. This is where the outer ear connects with the eardrum. Otitis externa is also known as “swimmer’s ear”. This is because repeated exposure to water places our ear canal at more risk of inflammation. For more information, learn more about “Swimmer’s Ear” (Otitis Externa). 
  • Otitis Media (acute or chronic): This is the most common form of ear infection where inflammation or infection is found in the middle ear. This can be a viral or bacterial infection or can happen due to a cold, sore throat, or any other respiratory infection. In some cases there is fluid trapped in the middle ear leading to infection, this is called serous otitis media.
  • Infectious Myringitis: The most common form of this infection is mycoplasma, found alongside the common cold or other similar infections. This condition is typically found in children, but it can happen to adults also.
  • Acute Mastoiditis: When otitis infection starts affecting the mastoid bone, it causes this condition. This needs immediate medical attention else it can cause permanent damage.  
  • Vestibular Neuronitis: This is a viral infection in the inner ear that starts affecting the cranial nerve. Vestibular neuronitis is triggered by inflammation of the vestibular portion of the eighth cranial nerve. This is a severe infection that causes gait imbalance. 

You Can Also Read:  Ear Blockage: Everything You Need To Know By Best ENT Doctor

What Causes an Ear Infection? 

Ear infections are mainly caused due to a virus or a bacteria that ends up blocking your Eustachian tubes, leading to fluid build-up in the middle ear. Eustachian tubes run from one ear to another and hit the back of your throat. 

Causes of blocked Eustachian Tube:
Allergies: seasonal or otherwise
Cold & sinus infections: Flu or adenoid infection
Excessive mucus accumulations around the area
Excess or chain smoking
Alterations in the level of air pressure


Infected adenoids (in children & adolescents) are another cause of eustachian blockages that ultimately cause ear infections. Adenoids are mainly nature’s way of building immunity in children. It starts developing around ages 2-3 years and disappears on its own by the time they reach adolescence. These act as filters to prevent the body from viral or bacterial infections that can be swallowed by children at a young age. In severe cases where they get infected, the infection tends to spread to the tonsils and other adjoining glands. 

Who is at risk of getting ear infections? Mostly children since they have short and narrow Eustachian tubes. Of these, those infants who are being breastfed or bottle fed also have a high risk of getting these. 

Apart from this, the following may also be the first point of contact that leads to ear infections: 

  • Changes in altitude, temperature and humidity need the body to rebalance and adapt to the changes and create adequate antibodies to rebuild immunity. Since our ears are responsible for maintaining the body’s balance, it is more likely to end up with an ear infection. 
  • Recent illnesses related to the ears can also flare up an infection in the middle or inner ear. 
  • Men are more at risk of getting ear infections compared to women, especially those with increased exposure to cigarette smoke. 
  • The use of a pacifier can lead to infections in children because bacterial infections can be spread in the process by infants and toddlers. This is often the case with children born with low birth weight as their immunity is not as strong. 

What are the Symptoms of Ear Infections?

The ear is a very vital but small organ, hence it will not be able to conceal discomfort for too long. The common symptoms of ear infections will be:

  • mild pain or discomfort in the ear
  • experience persistent pressure inside your ear
  • pus-like fluid drainage in the ear
  • partial or gradual hearing loss

These symptoms might come and go or may happen in either or both ears and can last between 3 days to even a week. 

In children, additional symptoms will include: 

  • Crying due to ear pain and drainage
  • Rubbing or pulling the ear
  • Fever with headache
  • No reaction to certain sounds
  • Frequently losing balance
  • Restlessness & loss of appetite

You Can Also Read: Ear Bleeding – Causes and Treatment

How are Ear Infections Diagnosed?

Consult an ENT specialist who will consider your symptoms, examine your ears with an otoscope and identify the cause of the problem. If the condition requires further investigation a few tests may be prescribed depending on the case: 

  • Fluid Sample. For advanced infections, your ENT may take a sample of the fluid build-up for further microbiological tests. 
  • Computed Tomography (CT) Scan. Your ENT will prescribe this to check if the infection has spread beyond your middle ear.
  • Tympanometry. To check how receptive your eardrum is to changes in pressure inside the ear. This is usually done with Acoustic reflectometry, which checks for the amount of fluid in the ear. 

Potential complications of an ear infection

Ear infections can clear up without any medical intervention, but the flip side is that they tend to keep coming back. So while the complications in most cases do not exist, in acute cases the following might be possible: 

  • hearing loss, gradually becoming severe, leading to deafness 
  • delay of speech in children, especially if there is chronic fluid build-up
  • mastoiditis where the infection spreads to the mastoid bone of the skull
  • meningitis, which is a bacterial infection that affects membranes of the brain & spinal cord
  • ruptured eardrums due to wrong treatment conditions, etc. 

How are Ear Infections Treated?

There are various treatment options available, but it all depends upon the nature of the infection and its severity. Some at-home treatments to manage infections till you get medical help are: 

  • Application of warm compress: Hold a warm cloth or heating pad with tolerable heat to the affected ear.
  • Take over-the-counter pain medication or ear drops for pain, and always complete the course of medication as prescribed by the doctor. 
  • Avoid sleeping on the affected ear.
  • Seek immediate medical help if things do not show any signs of improvement. 
  • Surgery is often the last option when treating ear infections in very severe instances. 

In conclusion, ear infections are mostly mild but can lead to severe outcomes if not addressed promptly. If you are currently facing issues, book an appointment immediately and reach out to the ENT Department at the CK Birla Hospital.

FAQ – 

What Should You Avoid With an Ear Infection?

Ear infections occur in your middle ear, in the area which is behind your eardrum. Most clear up within 3-4 days, but recurring or severe infections may need a course of antibiotics.

  • Avoid crowded spaces
  • Avoid proximity to loud sounds
  • Avoid exposing the infected ear
  • Avoid sleeping on the other side where the ear is not infected
  • Avoid any water from entering the middle ear

Does Drinking Water Help Ear Infections?

Yes. Drinking water can help as it helps clear out the Eustachian tube blockage temporarily due to movement of the jaw and throat cavity. 

Will a Hot Shower Help an Ear Infection?

A hot shower and hot compress help in case of painful ear infections. However, be extra careful that no water or fluid enters the middle ear in the process. 

How Do You Sleep With an Ear Infection?

Place a hot compress on the infected year and sleep on the side to keep the compress in place. The warmth will add some form of relief. Keep the ear covered till the problem is solved.

How Can Ear Infections Be Prevented?

  • Wash your hands often
  • Try and avoid pacifiers 
  • Avoiding secondhand smoke
  • Build your immunity with timely flu shots
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