Ear Infection (Otitis Media and Externa)

What is it?

Acute otitis media (OM) is a middle ear infection that may cause a change in the normal eardrum, which is located at the inner end of the ear canal. In OM, the infection can be caused by a virus or by bacteria. It may also be associated with allergies, enlarged adenoids, or a cold that could result in the blockage of the eustachian tube (the connection between the throat and middle ear that equalizes pressure).

In OM, there may be earache, fever, hearing loss, or a sense of fullness in the ear. In some cases there may be loss of appetite, vomiting, tinnitus (ringing in the ears), ear drainage, or a dizzy feeling (vertigo). Generally, OM is not contagious, although illnesses associated with ear infection, such as a cold, may be contagious. The time needed for the infection to clear up varies. Usually people begin to feel better several days after they start to take medication, but in the case of OM, some of the symptoms, such as a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear, may last for several weeks. Length of treatment for OM varies.

Image of human ear

Otitis externa

Otitis externa (OE) is an inflammation, irritation, or infection of the outer ear and ear canal, and is commonly called “swimmers ear.”

What causes it?

In OE, the infection is caused by bacteria or fungi. Scratching, inserting objects into the ear canal, or moisture (from swimming, for example), can make the ear canal vulnerable to infection.

What are its common symptoms?

In OE, the ear canal is red and swollen. It may be painful touch the ear and there may be yellow, yellow-green, pus-like, or foul smelling drainage from the external ear canal. There may also be fullness in the ear or loss of hearing.

Is it contagious?

In OE, the cause is not generally contagious.

How long will it last?

OE should be treated for 5-7 days.

How is it treated?

Treatment for this problem consists of two important parts: (1) what your health care provider can do, and (2) what you can do.

What can your health care provider do?

OM:

OE:

What can you do?

Can you prevent it?

It is very difficult to prevent a disease that is caused by a virus or bacteria. However, there are some things you can do to help.

Common myths

Follow-up

It is important to return for your follow-up visit if your health care provider recommends that your ears be re-examined.

Remember

Notify your health care provider if you have any of the following:

Reference

Cecil’s Textbook of Medicine, 23rd Ed. 2008.
MedlinePlus web site, www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus, search for ear infection
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