Ear infections occur when fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear behind the eardrum. They usually occur during or after a cold, infection or allergic reaction when the immune system is compromised and fluids are unable to drain due to swelling. Ear infections can be acute (painful but short in duration) or chronic (recurring infections or a single infection that does not heal). It is important to treat chronic ear infections because they can cause permanent damage to the middle and inner ear.
Young children are most prone to ear infections because their Eustachian tubes – the tubes that drain ear fluids – are short, narrow and horizontal. Children often need tubes surgically implanted in their ears to help with drainage that causes infections.
Some symptoms of ear infections include pain and swelling in the ear, ear pressure (similar to what one feels under several feet of water or on an airplane), ear drainage and hearing loss. These symptoms may persist or come and go. One or both ears may become infected.
To diagnose an ear infection, your doctor will examine your or your child’s ears with an otoscope, which has a light and a magnifying lens. They will look for redness, fluid buildup or a swollen or perforated eardrum. These are all signs of an ear infection.
Ear infections can be treated with tubes, a warm cloth over the ear, over-the-counter pain medication, ear drops or decongestants. The doctor will determine which treatment method is best based on the severity of the infection and the patient’s medical history.
When water becomes trapped in the ear, bacteria can cause inflammation and infection of the ear canal. This painful affliction is known as swimmer’s ear and can occur following exposure to any moist environment. It is most common in children and teenagers, water sport athletes, individuals with eczema and anybody with excess earwax. The best way to prevent swimmer’s ear is to keep moisture from entering the ear canals by using swimmer’s plugs.
Those with frequent exposure to cold water – most commonly surfers and swimmers – often suffer from reactive osteitis, an inflammation of the bone in the ear canal that leads to the formation of new bone growth. Referred to informally as “surfer’s ear,” this condition causes bone to thicken, leading to a narrowing (and occasionally, a complete blockage) of the ear canal. It can result in significant conductive hearing loss over time. Avoiding surfing and swimming in extremely cold water or windy conditions as well as keeping the ear canals warm and dry by wearing earplugs, a swim cap or a hood are key to preventing surfer’s ear.