Like every other part of the body, the ears are vulnerable to hostile invasions of bacteria and viruses. Ear infections are a frequent occurrence, especially among young children. In fact, infections of the ear are the second most prevalent illness in American children, trailing only the common cold. Through careful treatment, it is relatively easy to alleviate the symptoms caused by this ailment.
The Middle Ear and Swimmer’s Ear
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) notes that most ear infections fall into one of three categories, which are briefly detailed below:
Acute Otitis Media – Acute otitis media (AOM) attacks the middle ear, an important area that includes the ear drum. It also features an air-filled cavity known as the tympanum.
An AOM infection causes the middle ear to become inflamed, and for fluid to accumulate within this section of the ear. Both bacteria and viruses can be responsible for the onset of an acute otitis media, and these types of infection might trigger a substantial amount of pain.
Otitis Media with Effusion – OMEs often develop due to allergies, respiratory problems and airborne irritants like cigarette smoke. They are characterized by an accumulation of fluid within the middle ear region. Unlike AOMs, they are often asymptomatic, though some people with OME find that their hearing capabilities temporarily diminish. Once it forms, the fluid buildup caused by OME might take its time leaving; potentially spending over a month entrenched in the middle ear.
Swimmer’s Ear – You may not be familiar with it, but rest assured that swimmer’s ear is a well known condition among doctors. Each year, nearly two and a half million people visit the doctor’s office for this very problem.
As its name indicates, people develop swimmer’s ear after partaking in swimming, though it can also result from kayaking, surfing and diving. These activities allow water to spend an unusually long amount of time wedged in the ear canal. In turn, this may provide a fertile breeding ground for bacteria, eventually leading to symptoms such as itchiness, redness and swelling. In addition, pus may leak out of the ear canal. It is also worth noting that this infection may also lead to short-term hearing difficulties.
Clearing Out the Ears
The treatment methods for these three types of ear infections differ significantly. For acute otitis media, a doctor may decide to address a patient’s symptoms with antibiotics. Such medicines are generally prescribed for a period lasting 7 to 10 days. Many cases of AOM, however, clear up on their own accord. For this reason, some doctors opt to hold off on prescribing medications to treat the infection.
In comparison, otitis media with effusion usually requires no treatment whatsoever. Unfortunately, if fluid accumulations remain in the ear for an extended period of time, the middle ear can develop AOM. A doctor may need to remove stubborn blockages with the aid of an ear tube device.
Finally, the treatment protocol for Swimmer’s ear involves clearing out obstructive substances from the outer ear canal, such as piles of flaky skin and earwax clumps. This task can be accomplished via suction or with the aid of a thin, cylindrical instrument called a curette. Once the blockages have been removed, patients are typically given ear drops, which may include ingredients such as steroids, antibiotics and antifungal medications. Since swimmer’s ear can be quite painful, some people with this condition are also advised to take over-the-counter pain medications.
To avoid exacerbating symptoms, those bothered by swimmer’s ear should avoid swimming, scuba diving and flying (if possible). It may also be helpful to refrain from using headphones and earplugs until the affected ear stops releasing discharge. To keep the ear canal covered during bathing, some swimmer’s ear sufferers rely on cotton balls covered with petroleum jelly.