Has your ear been hurting lately? Is it itchy? Have you felt that you can’t hear as well in that ear? Is there some fluid coming out of your ear?
If you have children, have you noticed your child pulling or tugging at an ear? Maybe he or she seems to not hear as well in one ear, or loses balance and trips more easily than before?
Ear infections are very common. They are more common in children than in adults, but adults can still get them. In adults, they sometimes occur after a cold, picking your ears, or swimming. Having a weakened immune system, such as from diabetes or cancer, can increase your risk of developing ear infections.
Ears can be infected in different places—sometimes the infection is in the outer part of the ear canal, sometimes it is in the middle, and sometimes the infection can spread to other tissues in the head, and even into the brain!
The outer part of the ear can get infected from picking at your ears, such as with your finger or with a cotton swab. It is a common myth that one should use cotton swabs to clean the ears—it is easy to damage the ear with swabs, and it is safer to clean with a damp cloth on the outside of the ear without inserting an object inside the ear. Water from swimming or chemicals like soaps can also get into the ear and lead to infections.
The middle part of the ear can get infected as a result of allergies, a cold, or other infections.
Thankfully, ear infections are less common now with the help of vaccines, and there are antibiotics to treat them. Sometimes the cause is a virus rather than a type of bacteria, and antibiotics are not needed. It is important to see your doctor when you think you may have an ear infection to see what treatment you may need.
It is also very important to seek medical attention to help prevent serious complications of ear infections. Some serious complications include: long-term hearing loss, meningitis, infection of the tissues of the head and brain, facial paralysis, and more.
How can you try to prevent ear infections and their complications?
Make sure you and your family are up to date on vaccines. The pneumococcal vaccine can help reduce the risk of getting ear infections. Breastfeeding for babies can also help prevent ear infections. Avoid smoking and exposure to smoking. If you have diabetes, try to maintain a healthy level of blood sugar and work with your doctor on your diet and medications for controlling diabetes. If you recently had a cold or a bout of allergies, look for the symptoms of ear pain or decreasing hearing on one side. Be careful about how you clean your ears. Try to avoid picking at them with your finger or inserting cotton swabs. When you go swimming, try to avoid getting too much water into your ears.
If you think you might have an ear infection, you should go to a doctor to get an ear checkup, whether for yourself or your child. Thanks for reading and be well!
Dr. Chang is a resident physician who sees patients of all ages and provides obstetrical services at Lone Star Family Health Center, a non-profit 501©3 Federally Qualified Health Center operating facilities in Conroe, Spring, Willis, Grangerland, and Huntsville, and serving as home to a fully integrated Family Medicine Residency Program to increase the number of Family Medicine physicians for Texas and our community.