Inner ear infections, also known as otitis media, is an inflammation of the middle ear. The inflammation may be caused by bacteria or viral infection and affects more children than adults. Some inner ear infections can resolve on their own, but bacterial infections will need medical treatment.
A child who is too young to say her ear hurts will indicate discomfort by pulling on her ears. Other signs may include unusual amount of crying, trouble sleeping, failure to respond to sounds, increased irritability and fluid that drains from the ear. An older child will complain of pain in his ear, experience headaches and have a fever of 100 degrees or higher. Nausea and vomiting may also be present.
Adult symptoms will include an earache, fever of 100 degrees or higher, dizziness, hearing loss or hearing difficulty. Blood coming from the ear may mean a ruptured eardrum, and you should alert your doctor.
Ear infections can be brought on by a cold which inflames the inner ear and causes fluid to build up behind the eardrum. Eustachian tubes connect the nose to the inner ear, and when they become blocked by fluid, pain and infection can occur. Children’s eustachian tubes are smaller and shorter than an adult's, which causes infections to occur more frequently.
Your doctor will look into you or your child’s ear with an instrument called an otoscope. This lighted instrument will show inflammation or swelling in the inner ear. Your doctor may also use an instrument called a pneumatic otoscope which blows a puff of air onto your eardrum to detect movement. Fluid behind the eardrum will keep the eardrum from moving, indicating infection or fluid buildup.
For bacterial infections, your doctor will prescribe antibiotics. These medications should be taken in their entirety, and your doctor will want a follow-up exam to inspect you or your child’s ears after treatment. It may take several weeks for fluid to drain out of the ear, so hearing may be limited. Over-the-counter pain relievers such as Advil or Motrin may be recommended for pain.
Children with recurrent ear infections may need drainage tubes put into their ears. In this procedure, general anesthetic is used and a small drainage tube is inserted into the eardrum. This allows excess fluid to drain easily from your child’s ear and restore equal pressure between the inner and outer ear. The tubes will eventually fall out on their own as your child grows, and the holes will heal. Earplugs should be worn while swimming or bathing to keep water out of the ears.