What to know about ear infections

They may be common, especially in kids, but ear infections can cause a world of pain. Here is how to deal with this agonising ailment.

Whether it’s a sharp, unrelenting pain, a dull ache, or that feeling that your ears are blocked, an ear infection can knock you off your feet.

The discomfort can even radiate to your jaw, neck and the entire side of your head.

For kids, ear infections are very common and can cause great distress.

What causes ear infections?

Perth-based GP Dr Joe Kosterich says the ear has three separate parts, with the middle and outer ear the most likely to get infected.

“Middle ear infections, or otitis media, are typically caused by bacteria or viruses – often common cough and cold type illnesses – while outer ear infections, or otitis externa, are usually related to, but not directly caused by, water,” Dr Kosterich says.

What are common types of ear infections?

“Infections of the middle ear, just behind the eardrum, are common because this part of the ear is connected to the nasopharynx, the very upper part of the throat, by a short tube called the Eustachian tube, which can become blocked and is an ideal place for bacteria or viruses to thrive,” Sydney GP Dr Michela Sorensen says.

“Middle ear infections in babies and kids are common because their Eustachian tubes are smaller.”

Dr Sorensen says the outer ear, or ear canal, can also become infected.

“For people who swim regularly, water can get stuck in the ear canal, which is why it’s known as swimmer’s ear,” she says.

She adds that outer ear infections can also be caused by people grazing their ear canal.

And yes, cleaning out that wax a little too vigorously can do it!

Are ear infections contagious?

“Outer ear infections are not contagious,” Dr Kosterich says.

“Middle ear infections themselves are not, but if you’ve had a virus that has preceded it, then yes, the virus might be contagious.”

Proper hygiene, like frequent handwashing and avoiding contact with people who are sick, can reduce this risk.

How do I treat an ear infection?

Treatment for ear infections depends on the severity and cause.

Mild ear infections, especially in adults, might resolve on their own within a few days.

Pain relievers like paracetamol or ibuprofen can help alleviate discomfort.

“With children, if it’s not settling, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics,” Dr Kosterich says.

“If your ache is caused by an outer ear infection, you might need antibiotic ear drops to treat it.”

“Ear infections can be tricky with babies because they can’t tell you, but if they’re really unsettled and pulling at their ears, it may be earache,” Dr Sorensen says.

If your ear is red, painful, swollen or showing discharge, see your GP.

How long do ear infections last?

“Typically you can allow about five or 10 days for an outer ear or ear canal infection,” Dr Kosterich says.

“Middle ear infections might settle in three days but can last as long as seven to 10 days.”

Antibiotic treatments typically shorten the duration of bacterial ear infections, with noticeable improvement within 48 to 72 hours, Dr Sorensen says.

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Written by Liz McGrath.