What Are the Most Common Causes of an Ear Infection?

woman suffering from ear pain Ear infections are commonly thought of as something children get, but adults can also suffer from these ailments. They can cause pain, muffled hearing, and other symptoms and can lead to more serious conditions if they’re not effectively treated.

In this blog, the board-certified ear, nose, and throat physicians at New York ENT explain what causes an ear infection and what to expect if you have one.

What is an ear infection?

Ear infections are viral or bacterial infections that usually occur in the middle or inner ear. These areas are located behind the eardrum, and when they become infected, they can become inflamed and have a buildup of fluids that become trapped in the ear.

This can cause pain, muffled hearing, a feeling of fullness in the area, nausea, and/or ear drainage.

What causes ear infections?

These infections often have their roots in an upper respiratory infection such as a cold or the flu, or in an allergy. These conditions can cause your Eustachian tubes, which go from your middle ear to the back of your throat, to become blocked.

These tubes regulate air pressure, refresh air in the ear, and drain normal secretions. When they’re blocked, however, they can be painful and also cause other symptoms that are associated with ear infections.

How is an ear infection diagnosed?

Ear infections can be diagnosed by a combination of the symptoms you’re experiencing as well as an exam. A doctor will use a lighted instrument called an otoscope to examine your ears, throat, and nasal passages. A gentle puff of air may also be directed toward your eardrum. If the eardrum doesn’t move at all or moves very little, it may be an indication that you have fluid behind your eardrum.

This is often all that’s needed to diagnose an ear infection, but if your ear infection is persistent and hasn’t gotten better with time and treatment, your doctor may also perform some additional tests.

What are the treatment options for an ear infection?

If your infection is minor, conservative treatment options can often help. These include the following:

  • A warm, moist washcloth on the outside of the ear to help relieve pain
  • Over-the-counter acetaminophen (such as Tylenol) or ibuprofen (such as Advil) to help relieve pain
  • Cleaning of the ear using suction – performed by a doctor
  • Prescription ear drops
  • Prescription decongestants or antibiotics

If your infection hasn’t improved with more conservative treatments, a visit to an otolaryngologist may be needed. This type of doctor specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of issues of the ear, nose, and throat. Further treatment is important to make sure that you don’t develop other health conditions, such as temporary hearing loss.

In some cases, surgery may be needed to treat acute or chronic ear infections. Surgical procedures include the following:

  • Myringoplasty – used to repair a hole in the eardrum
  • Tympanoplasty – performed to check for signs of disease, eliminate infection, and repair the eardrum
  • Mastoidectomy – removes diseased air cells in the mastoid – the part of your skull behind your ear. These cells can become diseased if an ear infection spreads into your skull.

If you have an ear infection – particularly if it’s acute or chronic – make an appointment today with New York ENT. Our ENT physicians have extensive experience in diagnosing and effectively treating middle and inner ear infections and will recommend the most conservative treatment possible that will provide you with relief and help you avoid complications.

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