An ear infection can occur in any of the three parts of the ear: the outer ear, the middle ear or the inner ear. An outer ear infection is also known as swimmer’s ear. Middle ear infections occur very frequently in children and less commonly in adults (because children do not blow their noses well). Inner ear infections are very rare and cause vertigo, extreme dizziness, and sometimes hearing loss.
A middle ear infection, also known as otitis media, occurs in the space between the eardrum and hearing organ, or cochlea. Fluid from the infection surrounds the tiny bones (ossicles) in that space, whose function is to amplify sound. As such, it always results in hearing loss until the fluid clears and is usually quite painful. In adults, it is usually a consequence of an upper respiratory infection, when mucus gets trapped in that middle ear space and bacteria starts to grow.
The primary symptoms of otitis media are earaches and hearing loss. They usually occur in the context of a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat and fever.
Otitis media can be easily treated with oral antibiotics and steroids. Over the counter decongestants and anti-inflammatories are also helpful. These medications bring down the swelling to allow the fluid in the middle ear space to drain out of the Eustachian tube. Persistent or recurring infections may require an incision into the eardrum to drain the fluid with or without placement of a silicone tube, to prevent fluid from reaccumulating. This procedure can be done in the office with topical anesthesia.
Left untreated, otitis media may result in serious complications, such as permanent hearing loss and brain infections. Additionally, persistent ear fluid in the middle ear (for years)can become very thick and cause the eardrum to thin and eventually adhere to the bones in the middle ear space.