An ear infection is when the ear canal (otitis externa) or the middle ear becomes infected. They are most common in children but can occur at any age.
Most ear infections occur when the space between the eardrum and middle ear becomes filled with mucus or fluid rather than air because of a cold or viral infection. This mucus then becomes infected by bacteria which causes an ear infection.
If the adenoid - the tissue at the back of the throat - swells and blocks the Eustachian tube (a thin tube that runs from the middle ear to the back of the throat and drains debris and mucus from the middle ear), mucus gets trapped making it easier for infections to spread. If a person experiences frequent ear infections, this soft tissue can be removed.
Symptoms of an ear infection can often vary, and in young children can be difficult to spot. The typical symptoms of an ear infection can include:
In babies and young children, vomiting, irritability and a high temperature may all be signs of an ear infection
Runny mucus in the ear (this is a symptom of a perforated (burst) eardrum which will usually clear within a few weeks)
Over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen can ease pain and help to lower a high temperature.
As an ear infection will typically clear on its own within 2-3 days, antibiotics are not usually prescribed. If they are, it will normally be either because the patient is very young, the infection is severe or because complications have developed.
With most patients, a doctor will advise you wait 2-3 days for any improvement before prescribing antibiotics.
After an infection has cleared, it is common for a small amount of mucus to remain behind the eardrum for a while causing dulled hearing. If mucus does not clear, ‘glue ear’ may develop and hearing may remain dulled. Patients with ‘glue ear’ will need to visit their doctor to discuss further treatment. Eardrums can also burst which causes runny mucus to sit in the ear. Again, this should usually heal on its own within a few weeks but in some cases can remain perforated and may require treatment. In very few cases, the infection can spread to other parts of the head or ear, such as the bones, inner ear or protective membrane surrounding the brain. This leads to complications such as labyrinthitis and meningitis and will be treated by a doctor in hospital.