Physicians understand an ear infection as an inflammatory change in the area of the ear. This can be an inflammation of the outer, middle or inner ear. Depending on where the inflammation is and how severe it is, it can have negative effects on the patient’s further health.
What is an ear infection?
An ear infection is also called otitis in medical circles. The disease refers to an inflammation in the area of the ear. A distinction is made here between otitis externa (inflammation of the auditory canal), otitis media (middle ear infection) and otitis interna (inflammation of the inner ear). See aviationopedia for NBIA Explanations.
The type of ear infection depends on the exact location of the inflamed area. In most cases, all forms of otitis are expressed by severe earache, which is often accompanied by other symptoms such as fever or hearing loss.
Ear infections should always be treated, otherwise, in the worst case, they can lead to permanent hearing problems.
Ear infections are often caused by bacterial or fungal infections. Basically, the auditory canal and all areas of the ear behind it are well protected by fine hairs and earwax, among other things.
Under certain circumstances, however, pathogens can still get into these sensitive areas and cause unpleasant infections there. The permanent wearing of inner earphones or earplugs can weaken the body’s own protection, as can the ingress of water, for example when swimming or showering.
Ear allergies and eczema can also lead to otitis. Various childhood illnesses often involve an ear infection, especially of the middle ear.
Symptoms, Ailments & Signs
Inflammation of the ears is common in children, but is also a very common condition in adults. A typical sign of an ear infection is a stabbing and persistent pain. This pain is often quite uncomfortable, making sufferers generally feel very ill and restricted.
In most cases, leakage of pus is also a clear symptom and sign of a serious inflammation in the ear canal. If such a clinical picture remains without medical and drug treatment, then a significant worsening of the symptoms that occur can be expected. In many cases, headaches and body aches also occur in connection with an ear infection, so that the affected person feels generally unwell.
Only those who initiate medical and drug treatment at an early stage can expect a quick and complete recovery. In rare cases, however, ear infections are not caused by bacteria. Inflammation can also be caused by a foreign object in the ear canal.
This can also cause severe pain, which can even lead to permanent damage. If you decide early on for professional treatment, you can nip the symptoms described here in the bud. Otherwise, a significant aggravation of the individual symptoms is to be expected.
Diagnosis & History
In most cases, an ear infection is characterized by moderate to severe pain. If the person concerned then consults a doctor, he or she will take a closer look into the ear.
With the help of the so-called otoscope, he can examine the inside of the ear and in this way often already make a diagnosis. In addition, a comprehensive blood test may be done to confirm the presence of inflammation. If liquid escapes, a swab can provide further important information.
If left untreated, an ear infection can, in the worst case, lead to permanent hearing loss. Otitis interna in particular can spread to the brain and cause serious consequential damage.
The complications that can arise from an ear infection depend on which part of the sensory organ is affected by the infection. Complications are most likely to occur in the case of an untreated or untimely treated inflammation of the middle ear. Acute middle ear infections are a medical emergency. The possible complications are divided into extracranial (outside the skull) and intracranial (inside the skull) categories.
A common extracranial complication that mainly affects children is mastoiditis. This is a purulent inflammation of the cranial bone behind the ear. In addition, there is a risk of inflammatory facial paralysis (facial paralysis), since the bone canal of the seventh cranial nerve runs close to the middle ear. This nerve controls facial expressions.
If the inflammation spreads from the middle ear to the nerve, this can lead to unilateral paralysis. Those affected lose control of one side of their face, usually temporarily, and are disfigured by the corners of their mouth and eyes hanging severely.
One of the dangerous intracranial complications is otogenic meningitis. Meningitis develops when the pathogens reach and infect the meninges via the labyrinth in the ear or the blood vessels. In addition, intracranial abscesses, i.e. accumulations of pus inside the skull, can form, which can be life-threatening. If mastoiditis occurs, sinus vein thrombosis cannot be ruled out.
When should you go to the doctor?
Pain in the ear that lasts for several days needs evaluation. In the case of an ear infection, those affected often describe a stabbing pain that occurs suddenly. If the symptoms increase or spread, consult a doctor immediately. You should also refrain from taking painkillers until you have consulted a doctor. There is a risk of side effects, which should be avoided if possible. A tugging or whistling sensation in the inside of the ear, unusual ringing in the ear, or problems with balance are signs of an irregularity that need to be investigated.
If the person concerned suffers from unsteady gait, dizziness or an increased risk of falling, a doctor is needed. Headaches or a feeling of pressure are also causes for concern. If pus or a foreign liquid forms inside the ear, this is an indication of an existing disorder. Fever, a general malaise, or an unpleasant odor in the ear should be presented to a doctor. If hearing impairments occur or if the sounds of the environment are perceived muffled, a doctor’s visit is necessary. A strong feeling of illness, apathy or a loss of the usual physical and mental performance are signs of a health disorder. You should be presented to a doctor so that the cause can be clarified.
Treatment & Therapy
If the doctor treating you (usually an ENT doctor) has diagnosed an ear infection, he will initiate appropriate treatment. This depends particularly on which area of the ear is affected and what exactly is causing the infection.
If you have a bacterial infection, you will most likely be prescribed an antibiotic to fight the bacteria and prevent the infection from coming back. A fungal infection of the ear is treated with an antifungal drug. With inflammation of the ear canal, the drug can be applied in the form of an ointment; if the infection is deeper, tablets must be taken.
In addition, the healing process can be supported with heat applications, for example with red light. A middle ear infection can also be caused by a tear in the eardrum. In this case, a surgical intervention may be necessary. This also applies if there is chronic inflammation of the middle ear and the bone structure of the ear is attacked by the infection.
In the case of otitis externa, an operation is necessary, for example when a larger accumulation of pus has formed that needs to be removed. If an ear infection is treated professionally in good time, it usually has no consequences for the hearing ability or the health of the affected person.
Outlook & Forecast
The prognosis of an ear infection, also called otitis, depends not only on the patient, but also on the specific type of disease. The outlook for the simplest form of external ear infection is good. With timely medical treatment, the symptoms improve within a few days without consequences. However, if you react too late, the inflammation can spread to the auricle. Inflammation of the entire auditory canal also heals in a few weeks without any consequences. In rare cases, there is a life-threatening risk if it progresses to a more severe form. In diabetics, the recurrence can increase.
Middle ear infections generally have a good prognosis and heal within a few days without any consequences. If the disease becomes chronic or complications arise, the inflammation can spread to the brain. Young children are particularly at risk. Repeated infections can lead to hearing loss, which has a negative effect on speech development.
Inner ear infections also have good prospects if treated early. Then there are no complications or permanent damage. However, there are some risk groups. Children have a worse prognosis because their ear canals are still growing. In rare cases, hearing can be permanently damaged. Pregnant women and people with previous illnesses are also particularly at risk.
An ear infection, especially in the external area, can be prevented in various ways. For example, the ear canal should not be cleaned with cotton swabs to prevent pathogens from penetrating. If a lot of earwax builds up regularly, the ear canal should be cleaned by the doctor to prevent infections from forming. If the first signs of otitis appear, a doctor should be consulted at an early stage in order to initiate appropriate therapy and rule out long-term effects.
An ear infection usually heals completely with appropriate therapy. Since there are no symptoms afterwards, there is no reason for aftercare. The patient can go on with their normal life, but should take preventive measures. Because the body does not build up immunity to an ear infection.
Above all, ear protection against wind and weather prevents a new illness. The patient is responsible for this in his or her everyday life. If necessary, the doctor imparts the appropriate knowledge as part of the initial therapy. The treatment of a chronic ear infection is different. This is where long-term follow-up care becomes necessary.
The doctor tries to prevent constant infections and hearing loss by means of a close examination rhythm. For this purpose, control appointments are arranged individually. The otoscope and a blood test are suitable for determining the recovery process. The patient initially takes antibiotics. An operation may then be necessary.
This means that aftercare for an ear infection sometimes has different goals than for cancer. Because an ear infection cannot recur after successful therapy. There is also no life-threatening situation. In contrast, both forms of the disease are about avoiding complications and providing support in everyday life. The longer an ear infection lasts, the more important competent aftercare becomes.
You can do that yourself
An ear infection usually goes away after a few days. The patient can promote recovery by resting enough and protecting the affected ear from further irritation. Physical exertion and stress should be avoided. Home remedies such as calf wraps can be used for increased body temperature . The aching ear can be treated with onion bags or cherry pit pillows. Red light is also often used for ear infections.
Alternatively, herbal remedies help, for example homeopathic ear drops or ointments with glycerin. Ventilation tubes, which are inserted into the ear under anesthesia and allow ventilation of the narrowed auditory canal, are also particularly effective. Ventilation tubes are particularly useful for chronic middle ear infections or if the child has trouble hearing and shows signs of fever.
If the symptoms do not subside after three days or even worsen, a doctor must be consulted. In consultation with the doctor, further measures can be taken to quickly cure the inflammation. The patient should have another check-up a few days after recovery to make sure the inflammation has completely gone.