An ear infection is a common type of infection and is the result of an invasion of bacteria or viruses into the ear. An ear infection is a general term for several types of infections of the ears.
The ear includes three areas: the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. An ear infection of the outer ear canal is called otitis externa or swimmer's ear. An ear infection of the middle ear is called otitis media or middle ear infection. Labyrinthitis is an inflammation of the inner ear that can be caused by a bacterial infection or viral infection of the inner ear.
Sound waves travel through the outer ear, into the middle ear where they cause vibration of the tympanic membrane. These vibrations are then transmitted through the auditory bones and into the cochlea of the inner ear. In the inner ear, sound vibrations are converted into electrical impulses and carried by the 8th cranial nerve to the brain.
An ear infection can interfere with this process and result in symptoms that typically include ear pain and hearing impairment. Symptoms of ear infection may vary between individuals in character and intensity. The specific types of ear infection also cause some differing symptoms. Complications of an ear infection can be serious in some cases and result in brain abscess or permanent hearing loss. For more information on symptoms and complications, refer to symptoms of ear infection.
Ear infections occur most commonly in infants and young children, although they can happen at any age. Certain other populations are at a higher risk for developing ear infections. They include swimmers and people who have had recent illnesses, especially upper respiratory infection. Going to a different climate or altitude, not being breastfed and living in a cold climate can also increase the risk. Ear infections can also run in families.
Diagnosing an ear infection begins with taking a thorough personal and family medical history, including symptoms, and completing a physical and ear examination. The ear is examined with a lighted instrument called an otoscope.
Making a diagnosis may also include performing a variety of hearing tests (audiometry tests). A person with an ear infection, especially chronic otitis media may need to consult with ear specialists, such as an audiologist and/or otolaryngologist, in order to get a full examination, testing, diagnosis and treatment.
A diagnosis of an ear infection may be missed or delayed in some populations. For information on misdiagnosis, refer to misdiagnosis of ear infection.
Treatment for an ear infection varies depending on the specific type of infection. Treatment may include oral antibiotics and/or antibiotic ear drops and corticosteroid ear drops. In some cases that do not resolve with medication, a surgical procedure may be needed to insert tubes in the ears, remove ear fluid or infected tissue and/or repair a damaged eardrum. For more information on treatment, refer to treatment of ear infections....more »