Living with ear pain is no fun. Especially when accompanied by hearing loss, it can throw off your everyday activities. Identifying the cause can help you find relief as well as know when to get professional care. Below we’ve included some of the most common causes.
Ear infections may seem like a childhood ailment; in fact, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD), five out of six children will have an ear infection before they turn three. Even though they are far more common in children, people of all ages can develop an infection in the ear. Understanding the signs of an adult ear infection can ensure you seek treatment when needed.
Three Types of Ear Infections
Your ear is made up of three parts: the outer, middle and inner ear. Each of these parts can become infected.
Outer Ear Infection
An infection of the outer portion of the ear is known as otitis externa or swimmer’s ear. When you swim or spend any time in the water, the water can become trapped in your ear canal. This water can breed germs, causing an ear infection in the outer ear. This can cause your ear to be tender, red, swollen and painful.
The best way to prevent it from occurring is by using swim plugs. If you do get water in your ear, turn your ear to the side to let the water drain and thoroughly dry your ears.
If you do develop an infection, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic.
Middle Ear Infection
Also known as otitis media, this type of ear infection is caused by a fluid buildup in the middle ear from a cold, allergies or even a sinus infection. This is the most common cause of ear pain. Symptoms include:
- Feeling of fullness in the ear
- Hearing loss
Caused by a cold or respiratory problem, the infection can move to the ears and cause the Eustachian tubes to swell. These tubes connect your ears with the back of your throat and control the pressure within the middle ear and aid in drainage. When blocked up, the fluid within the ear cannot drain properly and begins to push against your eardrum.
If left untreated, a middle ear infection can lead to hearing loss.
If your doctor thinks the infection is caused by bacteria, you will be prescribed an antibiotic. If the infection is viral, the treatment is over-the-counter pain medication, a decongestant, nasal steroid and time.
Inner Ear Infection
What is diagnosed as an inner ear infection is usually caused by inflammation rather than actual infection. Symptoms include ear pain, dizziness, nausea and vomiting, and may be signs of meningitis, a serious medical condition.
Ear Infection Treatments
The cause and location of your ear infection will dictate your doctor’s treatment recommendation.
Outer ear infections require the ear to be well cleaned and antimicrobial, and anti-inflammatory medications will be applied. Antibiotics will be prescribed if your doctor suspects the infection is caused by bacteria.
Middle ear infections are often treated with the use of oral and topical antibiotics. Over-the-counter medications may be used to help deal with ear pain. Decongestants, nasal steroids and antihistamines may also be taken.
Spotting Ear Infections in Children
While ear infections are common in children, they can be hard to notice, especially if your child does not speak yet. Being able to identify the signs can ensure you seek treatment quickly, helping your child find relief.
Why Do Children Get More Ear Infections?
According to Dr. Jennifer Shu, a pediatrician in Atlanta and the editor of the American Academy of Pediatrics Baby & Child Health, children under three are most likely to get an ear infection because “they don’t have strong immune systems. They haven’t been exposed to many of these germs before, so it takes them a little longer to fight them off.”
In addition, the Eustachian tubes in young children are more horizontal. These tubes connect the middle ear to the throat and allow fluid that has collected inside the ear to drain. When the tubes are horizontal, they don’t work as well.
Ear Infection Symptoms
Common symptoms of an ear infection in children include:
- Ear drainage
- Trouble hearing
- Trouble sleeping
- Ear tugging
- Poor appetite
Shu explains, “for many children, it’s just fussiness, crying more than usual, being clingy.”
Treatment for Pediatric Ear Infections
Children younger than six months will require antibiotics to prevent the infection from spreading to other parts of their bodies.
According to the guidelines put out by the American Academy of Pediatrics, doctors should consider observing children between six months and two years old instead of giving them antibiotics if they are not seriously ill.
Children over two years of age are usually only given antibiotics after 48 to 72 hours of an ear infection if there is no improvement.
How to Prevent Ear Infections in Children
The best way to prevent an ear infection from occurring is to:
- Breastfeed your child
- Prevent colds by washing their hands and limiting group care
- Keep your child’s allergies under control
- Don’t smoke
- Vaccinate your child
Your ear is actively working to equalize the pressure on both sides of your eardrum. You know this is happening when you feel a little pop. But quick changes in air pressure, which occur when you are on an airplane or a fast-moving elevator, make it harder to keep the balance. This can lead to pain in the ear and trouble hearing.
Cerumen, also known as earwax, is created by glands in your outer ear. Earwax helps moisturize the ear canal, fights off infections and traps debris so that it cannot enter the ear.
In some cases, earwax can become impacted. People who use hearing aids, frequently wear earbuds, swab their ears with Q-tips or have a structural abnormality of the ear canal are especially prone to impacted earwax, but it can happen to anybody. Signs of impaction include earache, itchiness, drainage, infection, dizziness, tinnitus and hearing loss.
Impacted earwax should ideally only be removed by a hearing professional.
How To Get Rid of Earwax at Home
If your earwax isn’t impacted but is bothering you, you can remove excess earwax at home with an over-the-counter (OTC) kit or some warm water. Some kits contain hydrogen peroxide and should be avoided if you suspect you have an ear infection or damaged eardrum.
- If you’re bothered by an earache, it could be caused by an ear infection or earwax buildup.
- Anyone can get an ear infection, but children are more susceptible due to the structure of their Eustachian tubes.
- Usually, children with an ear infection are fussier than usual and may need antibiotics to treat the infection.
- Excess earwax should not be removed at home with a small object like a Q-tip, but an over-the-counter kit or warm water can help.
- Ideally, only a hearing professional should remove impacted earwax.