If you’re a parent, chances are good you’ve spent a few nights comforting a small child with an ear infection. And while ear infections are most common in childhood this condition, also known as otitis media, can occur at any age.
Otitis media typically occurs when bacteria from a bad cold or upper respiratory condition travels to the middle ear through the Eustachian tube, causing it to swell. The swelling prevents the fluid in the ear from draining normally and traps it, which interferes with our ability to hear normally.
Children’s ears are more susceptible to developing otitis media because of the way their Eustachian tube is positioned during childhood. Health care professionals estimate more than seventy-five percent of all children experience at least one episode of otitis media by the time they reach three years of age. Medical costs and lost wages incurred as a result total more than $5 billion annually in the United States alone.
There are three types of ear infections you should know about:
- Acute otitis media (AOM): This is the painful ear infection that keeps our kids up at night and pediatricians (or family physicians, if you’re a bit older) often treat with antibiotics. Symptoms include pain, fever, yellowish discharge and redness of the eardrum. Bacteria or viruses, such as rhinovirus and influenza, can trigger an AOM.
- Otitis media with effusion (OME). OME is caused when fluid in the middle ear becomes trapped behind the eardrum but does not become infected. This condition isn’t accompanied by the pain and fever of AOM – and doesn’t typically respond to antibiotics. Although this condition usually clears on its own, it can take more than a month. OME often occurs after an ear infection. Other causes include allergies, respiratory infections and irritants such as cigarette smoke.
- Otitis externa: More commonly known as Swimmer’s Ear, this infection of the outer ear canal needs to be treated with an antibiotic. The condition gets its nickname because it’s often caused by water that remains in the ear after swimming. Otitis externa can be painful to the touch and may be accompanied by a yellowish discharge.
Your physician can determine which type of ear infection you have and recommend the best course of treatment. Although most infections, with the exception of otitis externa, typically clear on their own without medication, it’s always wise to seek medical attention especially if your fever reaches 104 degrees, you have a bloody or pus discharge, and your condition does not improve or worsens after diagnosis.