Ear Infections and Earache
What Is Otitis Media?
Otitis media means inflammation of the middle ear. The inflammation occurs as a result of a middle ear infection. It can occur in one or both ears. Otitis media is the most frequent diagnosis recorded for children who visit physicians for illness. It is also the most common cause of hearing loss in children.
Although otitis media is most common in young children, it also affects adults occasionally. It occurs most commonly in the winter and early spring months.
Is Otitis Media Serious?
Yes, it is serious because of the severe earache and hearing loss it can create. Hearing loss, especially in children, may impair learning capacity and even delay speech development. However, if it is treated promptly and effectively, hearing can almost always be restored to normal.
Otitis media is also serious because the infection can spread to nearby structures in the head, especially the mastoid. Thus, it is very important to recognize the symptoms (see list) of otitis media and to get immediate attention from your doctor.
How Does The Ear Work?
The outer ear collects sounds. The middle ear is a pea sized, air-filled cavity separated from the outer ear by the paper-thin eardrum. Attached to the eardrum are three tiny ear bones. When sound waves strike the eardrum, it vibrates and sets the bones in motion that transmit to the inner ear. The inner ear converts vibrations to electrical signals and sends these signals to the brain. It also helps maintain balance.
A healthy middle ear contains air at the same atmospheric pressure as outside of the ear, allowing free vibration. Air enters the middle ear through the narrow eustachian tube that connects the back of the nose to the ear. When you yawn and hear a pop, your eustachian tube has just sent a tiny air bubble to your middle ear to equalize the air pressure.
What Causes Otitis Media?
Blockage of the eustachian tube during a cold, allergy, or upper respiratory infection and the presence of bacteria or viruses lead to the accumulation of fluid (a build-up of pus and mucus) behind the eardrum. This is the infection called acute otitis media. The build up of pressurized pus in the middle ear causes earache, swelling, and redness. Since the eardrum cannot vibrate properly, you or your child may have hearing problems.
Sometimes the eardrum ruptures, and pus drains out of the ear. But more commonly, the pus and mucus remain in the middle ear due to the swollen and inflamed eustachian tube. This is called middle ear effusion or serous otitis media. Often after the acute infection has passed, the effusion remains and becomes chronic, lasting for weeks, months, or even years. This condition makes one subject to frequent recurrences of the acute infection and may cause difficulty in hearing.
What Are The Symptoms Of Otitus Media?
In infants and toddlers look for:
- pulling or scratching at the ear, especially if accompanied by the following…
- hearing problems
- crying, irritability
- fever o vomiting
- ear drainage
In young children, adolescents, and adults look for:
- feeling of fullness or pressure
- hearing problems
- dizziness, loss of balance
- nausea, vomiting
- ear drainage
Remember, without proper treatment, damage from an ear infection can cause chronic or permanent hearing loss.
What Will Happen At The Doctor’s Office?
During an examination, the doctor will use an instrument called an otoscope to assess the ear’s condition. With it, the doctor will perform an examination to check for redness in the ear and/or fluid behind the eardrum. With the gentle use of air pressure, the doctor can also see if the eardrum moves. If the eardrum doesn’t move and/or is red, an ear infection is probably present.
Two other tests may be performed for more information.
- An audiogram tests if hearing loss has occurred by presenting tones at various pitches.
- A tympanogram measures the air pressure in the middle ear to see how well the eustachian tube is working and how well the eardrum can move.
The Importance Of Medication
The doctor may prescribe one or more medications. It is important that all the medication(s) be taken as directed and that any follow-up visits be kept. Often, antibiotics to fight the infection will make the earache go away rapidly, but the infection may need more time to clear up. So, be sure that the medication is taken for the full time your doctor has indicated. Other medications that your doctor may prescribe include an antihistamine (for allergies), a decongestant (especially with a cold), or both.
Sometimes the doctor may recommend a medication to reduce fever and/or pain. Analgesic ear drops can ease the pain of an earache. Call your doctor if you have any questions about you or your child’s medication or if symptoms do not clear.
What Other Treatment May Be Necessary?
Most of the time, otitis media clears up with proper medication and home treatment. In many cases, however, further treatment may be recommended by your physician. An operation, called a myringotomy may be recommended. This involves a small surgical incision (opening) into the eardrum to promote drainage of fluid and to relieve pain. The incision heals within a few days with practically no scarring or injury to the eardrum. In fact, the surgical opening can heal so fast that it often closes before the infection and the fluid are gone. A ventilation tube can be placed in the incision, preventing fluid accumulation and thus improving hearing.
The surgeon selects a ventilation tube for your child that will remain in place for as long as required for the middle ear infection to improve and for the eustachian tube to return to normal. This may require several weeks or months. During this time, you must keep water out of the ears because it could start an infection. Otherwise, the tube causes no trouble, and you will probably notice a remarkable improvement in hearing and a decrease in the frequency of ear infections.
Otitis media may recur as a result of chronically infected adenoids and tonsils. If this becomes a problem, your doctor may recommend removal of one or both. This can be done at the same time as ventilation tubes are inserted.
Allergies may also require treatment.
So, Remember . . .
Otitis media is generally not serious if it is promptly and properly treated. With the help of your physician, you and/or your child can feel and hear better very soon. Be sure to follow the treatment plan, and see your physician until he/she tells you that the condition is fully cured.
Ear Infection and Vaccines
Researchers continue to look for help for children and parents of children who suffer from the most common type of ear infection, called middle ear infection or otitis media (OM).
About 62 percent of children in developed countries will have their first episode of OM by the age of one, more than 80 percent by their third birthday, and nearly 100 percent will have at least one episode by age five. In the U.S. alone, this illness accounts for 25 million office visits annually with direct costs for treatment estimated at $3 billion. Health economists add that when lost wages for parents are included, the total cost of estimated treatments mount to $6 billion.
This is a big problem.
The usual treatment options for children with middle ear infections include 1) antibiotics; and 2) surgical insertion of pressure equalizing tubes in the ears. While studies have shown that antibiotics can be helpful in certain cases, excessive use can lead to bacterial resistance, making infections more difficult to treat. Tubes sometimes do not equalize pressure enough or may need reinsertion over time.
What about vaccines?
A vaccine is a preparation administered to stimulate the body’s own defense system to combat specific bacteria or viruses. The first vaccine was introduced in the 18th century for the prevention of smallpox. Today, each vaccine is designed to resemble a particular virus or bacteria (or group of viruses and bacteria). When administered, the vaccine triggers the defense system without actually causing illness. This helps the body to develop a defense (antibodies) against the virus or bacteria so that if they enter the body, you will not get sick. Today, vaccines exist to combat a wide range of viruses and some bacteria.
One of the most common and potentially serious bacteria to cause ear and sinus infections and pneumonia and meningitis is the pneumococcus. Recently a vaccine was developed that is effective against several common strains of pneumococcus.
Your child’s physician will advise you on appropriate vaccines for your child. If the pneumococcal vaccine is offered to your child, you may want to know:
The conjugate pneumococcal vaccine: This latest advance in pediatric healthcare prevents diseases caused by seven of the most common types of pneumococcal bacteria. It is safe and effective. It protects against serious forms of the disease up to 97 percent of the time, depending on the person. The vaccine is given by a needle. The side effects, which are usually minor and temporary, include some redness, swelling or tenderness from the injection, and a mild fever. Serious side effects, including allergic reactions, are quite rare. It can be given to infants, and there is no other vaccine to prevent pneumococcal disease in children less than two years of age. In 2002 the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended the vaccine for infants and toddlers under the age of five. See http://www.cdc.gov/nip for more information.
Conjugate vaccines are effective against otitis media in children under the age of five because they have a polysaccharide component linked to a protein component that an infant’s immature defense system can recognize. Children older than five, whose defense systems have matured, may receive a pneumococcal polysaccharide vaccine without the protein component.
How does this relate to otitis media?Here are issues to consider.
Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria (commonly known as pneumococcus) are thought to cause 50 to 60 percent of cases of otitis media. Before this vaccine was available, each pneumococcal infection caused:
- about five million ear infections;
- more than 700 cases of meningitis;
- 13,000 blood infections (septicemia); and
- other health problems including pneumonia, deafness, and brain damage.
Haemophilus influenzae (NTHi) and Moraxella catarrhalis vaccine
Two other common bacteria that cause ear and sinus infections are nontypeable Haemophilus influenzae (NTHi) and Moraxella catarrhalis. Recently, the National Institutes of Health has issued a license for the first clinical trials for a nontypeable Haemophilus influenzae (NTHi) vaccine. Vaccines to prevent viral infections like the flu that can eventually lead to ear infections should be considered for children with recurring ear infections. These vaccines are usually administered in the fall.