Acute ear infections are very common among children, and the most usual case is called otitis media. This is a bacterial or viral infection of the middle ear, which is directly behind the eardrum and holds the small, vibrating bones of the ear. As the middle ear becomes inflamed and fluid builds up, the infections cause pressure and pain in the area. However, acute otitis media does not last very long, and should clear up on its own. It is important to treat an ear infection immediately, because they can lead to complications in the long term.
These infections begin when the Eustachian tube, which runs from the middle ear to the back of the throat and drains fluids, becomes blocked. If fluid accumulates in the Eustachian tube, it can lead to infection. Acute ear infections occur so frequently in children because their Eustachian tubes are much more prone to clogging. Adults can also get the same sort of infection, but it is less likely than young children and infants.
A blockage or inflammation of the Eustachian tubes can be caused by allergies, colds and sinus infections, infected or overgrown adenoids, smoke or other environmental irritants, or excess mucus and saliva made during an infant’s teething period. Getting water in the ears does not cause an acute ear infection, however, unless the eardrum has a hole. Children are more prone to getting an ear infection when their altitude or climate changes, when attending day care, when in cold weather (most occur int the winter months), and after having another illness.
In children, symptoms of an ear infection often include ear pain, notably when lying down, restlessness, crying more than usual, pulling at an ear, and heightened irritability. Children can also get headaches, lose their balance, have trouble hearing, lose their appetite, vomit and have diarrhea. A fever of 100℉ or higher and fluid draining from the ear are also common.
Adults who have an acute ear infection usually experience ear pain, sore throat, reduced hearing abilities, and fluid drainage from the ear. It is recommended to see a doctor if symptoms persist for longer than one day, ear pain is intolerable, a child is unable to sleep or is irritable after having a cold or other upper respiratory infection, or any discharge is emerging from the ear. Any child under 6 months with a fever or other symptoms should be taken to their pediatrician for immediate help. Children 6 months or older should be monitored closely at home unless they have a fever above 102℉, severe pain and additional symptoms, or other medical problems.
Certain ear infections will clear on their own without using antibiotics. Generally, once the pain is treated and the body is given time to heal, the infection goes away in a matter of days. Common treatments for pain relief include placing a warm cloth over the painful ear, and over-the-counter or prescription pain relief ear drops. You can also take OTC analgesics like ibuprofen and acetaminophen to reduce pain and fever. Never give aspirin to a child, though. Consult your doctor before using any medications.
If symptoms continue or worsen, see your doctor to discuss the need for antibiotics. Antibiotics can only help if you have developed a bacterial infection in your ear. If your middle ear has a viral infection, these drugs will not help. But because of the infant’s susceptibility to infection, children between 6 months and 2 years old are usually always treated with an antibiotic.
In severe cases where children experience recurring ear infections over a short time, or the infection does not heal with other treatment, a doctor may suggest ear tubes. This requires a surgical procedure where a small tube is placed in the eardrum, allowing a small hole to stay open for the ear to drain. General anesthesia is given during the procedure. Typically, the tubes fall out on their own over time, though a doctor may also remove them if they do not.
Enlarged adenoids are also considered a cause of ear infections, and if a person has repeated ear infection, they may want to have them removed surgically.
How Health Insurance Can Help
The middle ear is a delicate place, and for those who are treating an infection, it is always recommended to see a doctor. As it is difficult to treat ear infections by natural or over-the-counter means only in some cases, seeing a doctor to make sure you are doing what’s best is key. Having a primary care provider to call or visit is essential with ear infections, because if the symptoms happen to worsen you have somewhere to go other than an urgent care center. While community health centers can also help, you run the risk of being put on a waiting list and not getting yourself or your child cared for immediately. Visiting the emergency room without insurance is even more of a gamble than a retail clinic or urgent care – it can get very expensive.
By getting a health insurance plan, you have access to doctors, specialists, and facilities for a reduced in-network rate to give you peace of mind when these situations occur. If you can’t afford one right now, look into your state’s Medicaid program to find out if you qualify, or apply for a Health Coverage Tax Credit through the IRS, and look into your state’s risk pool. To find out what individual health plan rates are like for you in your area, get a quote.
Having coverage before you or your child get an ear infection is also important, because if you apply while you have this problem, you may be declined coverage. Certain applications will ask about how many ear infections you or your dependents have had recently, so it is best to get covered in advance.
1. PubMed Health. Ear infection – acute.
2. Mayo Clinic. Ear infection (middle ear).