What Causes Middle Ear Infections?
Being troubled by the pain, pressure, and blocked sensations from a middle ear infection can feel concerning and may leave you wondering what has caused the infection in the first place, mainly if it’s a recurring problem that keeps coming back. While middle ear infections are common, especially in young children, knowing the cause can help prevent them from occurring in the first place while helping you know what to do when they arise.
Middle ear infections, known medically as otitis media, are an infection located behind your eardrum and usually occur when something stops fluid from draining from the middle ear. So what can cause this to happen? Here we’ll look at exactly what a middle ear infection is, how they’re caused, and how prompt treatment with an ear health professional can help.
What Is A Middle Ear Infection?
Our ears are made up of three zones, which all work together to hear sounds: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. The eardrum, a very thin piece of skin that vibrates when hit by sound waves - much like a drum, separates the outer and middle ear.
The middle ear connects to the throat by a small canal called the eustachian tube, which helps to drain normal secretions from the middle ear. If something irritates this tube or causes the area around it to swell, this can prevent fluid from draining and cause it to build up behind the eardrum.
Typically, the area behind the eardrum is filled with air. However, in a middle ear infection, this space can become blocked and filled with mucus, a fluid secretion, which can become infected with bacteria or viruses, causing inflammation, pain and swelling. Other symptoms may include:
• Temporary hearing loss or muffled hearing
• A feeling of pressure or blockage in the ear
• Earache - pain in the ear that is sharp, dull, or throbbing
• Fluid discharge from the ear, known as a 'runny' ear
• Ringing in the ears (tinnitus)
• Sore throat
Rarely, this fluid collection can increase the pressure within the middle ear and may, in some cases, cause part of the eardrum to tear or rupture. Although the eardrum can repair itself, frequent ruptures which result from recurring chronic ear infections may result in scar tissue on the eardrum and hearing loss, which is why we recommend seeing a hearing care professional as soon as you notice symptoms.
Causes Of Middle Ear Infections
A middle ear infection can happen after any scenario that prevents fluid from draining out of the middle ear. This can include:
• Infections: A middle ear infection often results from a common cold, influenza, sinusitis, or a strep throat infection. The nose and throat are connected to the ear by the eustachian tubes, so as bacteria or viruses enter the nose or throat from those infections, they can travel up the eustachian tubes to the middle ear.
• A swollen adenoid: Adenoids are two small pads of soft tissue in the back of the nose. Because adenoids are near the eustachian tubes' opening can block the tubes and lead to a middle ear infection when they swell. This occurs more frequently in children with proportionately larger adenoids than in adults.
• Narrow tubes in children: Younger children are particularly vulnerable to middle ear infections as their eustachian tubes are narrower and more horizontal than adults, making it harder for them to drain fluid and more likely to get clogged.
Other risk factors that can make people more likely to develop a middle ear infection include:
• Cleft palate: a birth defect whereby a baby is born with a separation in the roof of their mouth
• Down's syndrome: a genetic condition with specific physical characteristics which can make it more difficult for the eustachian tubes to drain fluid from the ear
• Group child care: Children cared for in group settings can be more likely to be exposed to bacteria and viruses and develop colds and ear infections than children who stay home.
• Allergies: People with allergies may have a greater risk of ear infections when pollen counts are high during different seasons of the year
• Poor air quality: Being a smoker or being exposed to tobacco smoke can increase the risk of ear infections
Treating Middle Ear Infections
If one or both of your ears feel blocked, muffled or painful, or if you’re concerned by frequent ear infections, it’s time to book an appointment with a qualified ear health professional who can examine your ears, make an accurate diagnosis, rule out any underlying conditions, and get started on an appropriate treatment plan.
Your consultation will include a thorough history review, assessing your ears and how your hearing has been impacted. If a middle ear infection is identified, your ear care professional will discuss the treatment options relevant to you, depending on the cause of your infection. You will have a tailored management plan that helps get you symptom relief. This will help you prevent (where possible) middle ear infections in the future, including detecting the early signs so you can treat them promptly before it causes you discomfort.
Book an appointment with our friendly team here at Kevin Paisley Hearing at your local centre here.