Ear infections or acute otitis media (AOM) are a common health issue of people of all ages and can cause pain and discomfort. AOM is an acute infection that occurs when an area called the middle ear space becomes irritated, often due to a bacterial or viral infection. Children are more likely to get them, but adults can also get them. Risk factors of getting AOM include weakened immune system, exposure to secondhand smoke, recurrent upper respiratory infections, and eustachian tube obstruction or dysfunction. The eustachian tubes run from the middle ear to the back of the throat and help to drain fluid from the middle ear. When a eustachian tube becomes blocked, fluid can build up in the middle ear, providing a breeding ground for bacteria or viruses. Also at risk are children who attend daycare and who have had a prior ear infection.
Symptoms of an ear infection most commonly present after an upper respiratory infection or allergies and present with ear pain. They can also present with dizziness, ringing in the ear, difficulty or muffled hearing, feeling of fullness in the ear, discharge and occasionally fever. In some cases, the tympanic membrane, a layer that separates the outer ear from the middle ear, can rupture and have some purulent (pus) drainage. In infants and children, symptoms may include more crying than usual and tugging on the ears.
Other illnesses that a doctor may also consider with similar presentations or symptoms include chronic otitis media, otitis media with effusion, otitis externa (swimmer’s ear), etc. Some of these illnesses may or may not require treatment or antibiotics. The diagnosis of acute otitis media is confirmed with an otoscope, a tool used to look at the tympanic membrane which can show bulging, clouding, or redness.
The main treatment for acute otitis media typically involves antibiotics to clear up the infection. However, some mild ear infections will clear up on their own without antibiotics. For pain, over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen can be used, as can hot or cold compresses.
In severe or recurrent cases or with certain complications, further evaluation or surgery may be necessary. This includes draining fluid from the affected ear, inserting ventilation tubes to improve drainage, or removing affected tissue.
Ear infections are a common illness that can cause pain and discomfort but are treatable with antibiotics and pain relievers. It is important to seek medical attention to determine the best treatment course.
Dr. Nguyen 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.