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Music to Your Ears: How Your Royal Oak ENT Doctor Can Help You Overcome an Ear Infection

Did you know ear infections are the second most common pediatric diagnosis in the emergency department -- especially in children under the age of two? According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), roughly 80% of all children in the US will experience a case of otitis media (infection in the middle ear) during their lifetime.

It's not just children, though -- adults can get ear infections, too!

As a long-time family ENT clinic in Royal Oak, MI, we've treated all kinds of ear infections over the decades -- in both children and adults. The good news is that most ear infections are highly treatable, especially when diagnosed in a timely manner. In fact, some treatments can be done exclusively from home!

Don't worry -- we're going to teach you everything you need to know about ear infections.

Ear Infections: The Unwanted Guests of the Ear

An ear infection, clinically called acute otitis media, is an infection of the middle ear -- the air-filled area between the eardrum and the inner ear. This area of the ear contains tiny vibrating bones that work in conjunction with the eardrum to allow our brains to detect and understand sounds.

While anyone can get an ear infection, it's far more common in children than adults.

Ear infections occur when the narrow tubes that connect the middle ear to the throat become swollen and blocked. This blockage leads to a build-up of mucous in the middle ear which can become infected.

This infection can cause a variety of symptoms from dizziness to intense pain.

So, what causes an ear infection? 

Ear infections are usually caused by a cold or allergies. Both of these conditions can cause the narrowing of the tubes connected to the middle ear, causing it to fill with excess fluid and become ripe for infection.

If the disease is bacterial, the middle ear may fill with puss rather than fluid.

Germs from a cold or upper respiratory infection travel to the middle ear via the eustachian tubes, the small tubes connected to the middle ear. Once inside the middle ear, the bacteria can cause the tubes to swell, resulting in the classic fluid build-up associated with ear infections. This fluid is the perfect breeding ground for the germs or bacteria in the middle ear.

These bacteria eventually breed -- causing an infection.

Symptoms & Risk Factors: Why Ignorance Is Not Bliss

Ear infection symptoms are different for children and adults. Children can have one or more of a laundry list of symptoms, while adults only have three common symptoms -- ear pain, drainage of fluid from the ear, and difficulty hearing.

One constant among both children and adults is that ear infection symptoms usually present rapidly and intensely.

Many of the symptoms associated with childhood ear infections are actually the product of not being able to communicate what is happening in their ear. Here are some of the most common:

  • Ongoing ear pain that is usually worse when lying down
  • Tugging or pulling at the ear
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Crying more than usual
  • Fussiness
  • Trouble hearing or responding to sounds
  • Loss of balance
  • Fever of 100 degrees or higher
  • Drainage of fluid from the ear
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite

Let's also take a look at some of the most common risk factors for ear infections:

  • Children between 6 months and 2 years of age are at greatest risk.
  • Ear infections can run in the family.
  • Having a cold increases the risk of getting an ear infection.
  • Chronic illnesses including immune deficiency and respiratory illnesses increase ear infection risk.
  • Air pollution increases the risk of developing an ear infection.

If you notice any of these symptoms, it's important to see your doctor. They can examine the ear and determine if there is fluid buildup or inflammation indicating an infection. With proper diagnosis and treatment, most ear infections can be cleared up quickly.

Diagnosis & Treatment: In One Ear and Out the Other

Ear infections are tricky to identify but doctors have a few tricks up their sleeves. First, they’ll take a close look inside the ear using an otoscope, a special lighted instrument that allows them to peek inside. They’re checking for signs of fluid buildup, redness, or inflammation - all clues that point to an infection.

Next comes a simple hearing test, where the doctor covers the unaffected ear, then whispers or talks softly to see if the child responds. An infected ear often can’t detect soft sounds as well. If the diagnosis is still uncertain, a tympanometry test may be done, which measures the function of the middle ear.

With a combination of sight, sound, and technology, doctors can determine if fluid or bacteria has led to infection behind the eardrum. While ear infections can be painful and disruptive, an accurate diagnosis helps get treatment started right away.

So, how are ear infections treated? 

Ear infections often heal without treatment. Oftentimes, we simply monitor a child's condition to watch for improvement before taking any additional steps.

However, if the infection is too advanced or if the infection is one in a string of chronic infections, antibiotics or even surgery may be required. Antibiotics are prescribed for an ongoing ear infection that won't clear or for a particularly severe infection that has been discovered.

Surgery is the last resort and is reserved until all other avenues have been exhausted. However, for those patients with chronic, severe ear infections, surgery provides excellent results.

The Rontal Clinic: Conquering Ear Infections in Royal Oak

Does your child have a stiff neck? Do they often look sluggish or ill? Are they unsteady when they walk? Do they cry excessively or have weakness in the face? Is their temperature over 104 degrees Fahrenheit? If you answered 'yes' to any of these questions, then your child might be dealing with an ear infection.

As a longtime pediatric ENT in Royal Oak, MI, we want our neighbors to know the important ear infection facts that can help them make informed decisions. With these facts, you'll be better able to understand what's happening inside your child and when it might be time to contact a professional.

And when it's time, you can come see us!

If your child is showing signs of an ear infection, and it won't go away, schedule an appointment with us -- you can reach us at (248) 737-4030.

We're always here to help!