By Dr Lizzie Kershaw-Yates, GP and medical team member at TheOnlineClinic
What is an ear infection?
Ear infections are common and can occur in both ears, although usually only one ear is affected.
Infections can develop in any one of the three parts of the ear – but they are most common in the outer ear, or the middle ear, rather than the inner ear.
Symptoms of ear infection
- Outer ear infection – Itching, discharge, pain (earache) slight loss of hearing and a blocked feeling.
- Middle ear infection – Earache, fever, nausea, vomiting, slight loss of hearing and discharge (if the eardrum bursts). Usually, the eardrum heals, but middle ear infections can permanently damage the eardrum and cause deafness.
- Inner ear infection – As the inner ear is associated with both hearing and balance, infections tend to cause hearing loss, dizziness, a spinning feeling (vertigo) and loss of balance.
Who gets ear infections?
Ear infections can occur in people of all ages, although they commonly occur in children. You are at a greater risk if you get water, soap or shampoo in your ear when you wash or go swimming.
Outer ear infections commonly occur in people with skin problems such as dermatitis, eczema, or psoriasis, and in those with narrow ear canals.
What causes an ear infection?
- Outer ear infections are usually caused by bacteria in the ear canal but can be the result of a fungus or yeast.
- Middle ear infections tend to occur when the air-filled space fills with fluid (mucus) and then becomes infected – this can particularly happen with a cold.
- Inner ear infections are generally caused by viruses e.g. the common cold virus
- They can also arise for no apparent reason.
How are they treated?
Most ear infections resolve themselves within 2-3 days and do not require treatment. If an infection persists beyond a few days, you should contact your doctor.
Painkillers can help reduce fever and manage the pain of the infection.
Antibiotics can be prescribed to treat ear infections and inflammation. They are especially used when the infection is severe and there’s a high risk of complications.
Reducing the risk of ear infections
You can reduce your chances of getting an ear infection by keeping your ears dry and preventing water, soap or shampoo from running in the ear. Wear a cap and earplugs when swimming and put Vaseline-covered cotton wool in your ear canal when you take a shower or wash your hair.
Do not prod inside your ear or use cotton buds. These can scratch and push wax and debris down the canal.
If an ear infection has been persisting for more than a few days, then your GP will be able to advise.