Ear Infections – Their Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Concerns

Among the most common conditions that the average general practitioner is called upon to diagnose and treat are ear infections and of those, the majority tend to affect children. The organ consists of three chambers described as external, middle and inner. Each provides its own particular set of functions and all are susceptible to attack by a range of pathogenic organisms that includes fungi, yeasts, bacteria and viruses. Depending upon which of the three regions may be affected, the symptoms can vary while the identity of the causative organism may also determine the severity of the condition.

In the case of a child, the only clues to the condition are very often a raised temperature and a tendency to tug at its lobes. However, in other cases, the common symptoms may include severe pain or earache, a discharge that, on occasions may also contain blood and small badly, dizziness, deafness and a ringing in the ears known more formally as tinnitus. Depending upon which of these symptoms may tend to predominate, it will normally be possible for a physician or, as is quite often the case, an audiologist to determine which of the chambers may be affected.

Where it is the outer or external region that is involved, the condition is termed otitis externa and, generally, these outer ear infections are caused by bacteria that invade the lining of the canal. It is quite common in these cases for the canal to become completely closed due to swelling and the result is a temporary deafness. Either one or both sides may be affected and, in subjects that may be stressed or physically run down, the condition is often a recurring one. Psoriasis and eczema sufferers as well as those with particularly narrow auditory canals are among those more prone to be affected.

Antibiotic drops, which may occasionally need to be reinforced by an oral antibiotic, form the first line of defence and most cases of otitis externa recover within a week, though some may require referral to an ENT specialist. Acute otitis media, where the middle chamber is involved, is also fairly common in children and will normally respond well to antibiotic therapy. The associated pain can be very intense and is often only relieved when the eardrum bursts and releases the pressure caused by the build-up of pus much like the case with an abscess. The drum usually heals well and there should be no permanent impairment of hearing except where there may be a tendency for ongoing recurrence.

The chronic form of otitis media can be far more serious. It is often painless and tinnitus, dizziness and facial weakness may be the only symptoms. Referral to an ENT specialist is very important as, in many cases; some form of surgical intervention is likely to prove necessary.

Involvement of the inner chamber is rarer and it is the common cold virus that is most often the causative organism in these cases although those responsible for mumps measles and herpes are quite often implicated also. In contrast to the conditions that present in the outer and middle chambers, when infections occur within the inner chamber of the ear, these are most often characterised by a sudden loss of hearing accompanied by dizziness.


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