Acute otitis media, more commonly referred to as an ear infection, is a bacterial or viral infection of the middle ear. The middle ear is the hollow space behind the eardrum; it contains three small bones that are instrumental in moving sound wave vibrations from the outer to the inner ear. Bacterial and viral infections lead to inflammation and fluid buildup, which is what causes an earache.
A viral or bacterial infection is usually the result of another illness already in your body, such as a cold or the flu. Since these illnesses can cause congestion and swelling, your nasal passages, throat and Eustachian tubes can become blocked. This can prevent the middle ear from properly draining.
The Eustachian tubes are a pair of narrow tubes that connect your middle ear to the back of your throat. They are primarily responsible for regulating the drainage and air pressure within the middle ear. If they become inflamed, fluid will be unable to adequately drain from the middle ear.
Adenoids are small pads of tissues that sit at the opening of the Eustachian tubes in the back of your throat. They play a large role in your body’s immune system and therefore are very susceptible to infections. If they become enlarged they can block the Eustachian tubes, which can cause fluid to build up in your middle ear.
Children are more likely to suffer from ear infections because their adenoids are larger and their Eustachian tubes are narrower.
The most common symptoms of an ear infection are ear pain, drainage of fluid from the ear and hearing problems. Children may also experience a high fever (over 100 Fahrenheit), headaches and loss of balance. If these symptoms last for more than a day or the ear pain is severe, you should consult a doctor.
Diagnosis and Treatment
In order to diagnose an ear infection, Dr. DiPasquale will need to review your list of symptoms. He will then complete a physical exam, looking into your ears, throat and nasal passage. A pneumatic otoscope is a device that can determine if there is fluid buildup behind the eardrum by pushing a puff of air against it. Depending on how the eardrum moves, Dr. DiPasquale can determine if a buildup of fluid is causing your symptoms. Additional tests may be performed if he is unsure of a diagnosis.
The most common treatment for an ear infection is to wait and see. This involves doing nothing for a few days and monitoring the infection to see if it clears up on its own. During this treatment the pain can be managed with a warm compress or over-the-counter pain medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Antibiotics will be prescribed if your symptoms do not improve after a few days.
Ear tubes may be recommended if your child frequently suffers from ear infections. Ear tubes involve a simple surgery (called a myringotomy) that makes a small hole in your child’s eardrum. Any fluid within the middle ear is suctioned out and small tubes are placed in the newly made holes to make sure they do not close up. After the surgery, fluid is able to easily flow out of the middle ear and air moves in and out to help with ventilation. These ear tubes typically stay in place for six months to a year and usually fall out on their own.