What is an Ear Infection?

Middle ear infection

The middle ear is the space immediately behind the eardrum. Between the middle ear and the nasopharynx is a small passage known as the Eustachian tube. Moisture from the middle can be brought to the nasopharynx via the Eustachian tube.

A middle ear infection usually starts out with an ordinary head cold. The Eustachian tube can be closed off as a result. Viruses (sometimes also bacteria) and inflammatory fluid is then ‘caught’ in the middle ear. Pressure in the middle ear increases. The eardrum starts to swell and this hurts. It can also happen that the pressure in the eardrum causes it to rupture.

The middle ear infection is very common among babies and young children under the age of five. The most common symptoms are (obviously), ear pain, fever, cold and an overall sick feeling. Children might keep grabbing their ear and complain about stinging ear pain. Often, this involves a fever, which causes the children to be listless and drowsy. Toddlers may also have a stomachache, vomit or diarrhea. In babies, the symptoms often are that they are restless, mainly at night, and don’t drink well. In children, the middle ear infection is often healed within a week, provided that the right medication and treatment are given.

Ear canal infection

Adults often suffer this form of an ear infection, being an infection of the ear canal. In an ear canal infection, the skin of the ear canal is inflamed. In popular parlance, this kind of infection is also referred to as swimmer’s ear. The medical term for this infection is otitis externa. This form of ear infection is the most commonly diagnosed ear infection by the ear specialist.

An infection of the outer ear, that is the part in front of the eardrum, usually occurs as a result of moisture in which bacteria or fungus have developed. (wet variant) There can also be eczema present, or irritations can occur through picking at it or cleaning too much, which cause itching and pain. The ear canal infection can have different causes, such as pool water, picking with swabs or even by the in-ear headphones of an mp3 player.

Preventing with earplugs

If you know that you’re susceptible to ear infections, and, in particular, the ear canal infection, optimal prevention is important. Various kinds of advice are issued to prevent ear infection, as summarized below:

  • In general, the ear canal cleans itself;
  • Avoid picking the ears;
  • Only remove visible earwax;
  • Don’t use any matches or hairpins to clean the ear canal;
  • After swimming or showering, allow the water to run out of the ear canal, by tilting your head and shaking it;
  • Gently dry it with a tissue or hairdryer is ok too;
  • If the infection keeps arising after swimming, you can use a cotton ball with Vaseline, a swimming cap or earplugs to protect the ear canal;
  • Avoid (cosmetics) products when you notice that they irritate your skin;
  • If you often have ear canal infections when using a hearing aid, make sure to have the hearing care professional check whether the earpiece fits correctly and schedule an appointment with your ear specialists to have your ear looked at.*

We would like to highlight one advice, being the use of earplugs. If the ear canal infection keeps arising after swimming, hence the phenomenon swimmer’s ear, it is recommended to start using earplugs when swimming. This makes it much harder for moisture to inflict damage on the ear canal. Earplugs can never provide a 100% guarantee that ear infections will be prevented, however, to reduce the risk of one, earplugs are recommended.

* Source: Nederlandse Vereniging voor Keel-Neus-Oorheelkunde en Heelkunde van het Hoofd-Halsgebied