Ear Infection Prevention and Treatment
Some people are lucky enough to go a lifetime without ever experiencing an ear infection. Unfortunately, I am not one of those people. I have been plagued with constant infections since the age of five. Along the way, I have discovered various tips and techniques to relieve my symptoms, and now I would like to share them with you.
I must stress that I am not a doctor. This information I present here is the result of years of personal experience. What works for me may not work for you.
After being diagnosed with glue ear as a child (the medical term is otitis media with effusion), I had surgery to have grommets inserted. These tiny little tubes were going to remove the excess fluid from behind my eardrum, and then they were supposed to fall out within around 18 months.
Only, it didn't quite go according to plan. One fell out, and the remaining hole closed over on its own. The other decided to stay in a little longer, and when it did eventually fall out there was a perforation left in the eardrum. Thus ensued years—literally around 15 years—of constant ear infections, ENT appointments, antibiotics, and other topical treatments.
As a result of all of this, any infections I get are now resistant to antibiotics, and they take a lot longer to clear up. Eventually I had successful surgery to repair the eardrum, and everything seemed to be okay. My infections were reduced to one every 6 months or thereabouts, which was successful compared with the previous frequency (usually every month, and lasting 2-3 weeks).
While my ear problems are far from over—I am currently having testing to see why I am having dizziness and nausea when there doesn't seem to be an infection present—I would like to share some bits of information that have helped me over the years.
What Is An Ear Infection?
An ear infection is the common name for a group of infections affecting the inner or outer ear. This is often caused when the ear canal or inner ear is affected by a bacteria or fungus to the point of causing pain and discomfort.
There are two types of infection—internal and external. Both can refer to a group of infected areas. Both are extremely painful and can come with complications. There are various symptoms associated with both types of infection, and you can have both simultaneously, which can cause trouble in ensuring the correct treatment path.
Pain When Ear Touched
Discharge or Pus
How Did I Get An Ear Infection?
Ear infections are particularly common in those who are regularly exposed to water in or around the ears, such as swimmers. However, this is not the only way you can get an infection.
You may have recently had a cold or flu, and the germs have simply travelled through the nose and throat, via the eustachian tube, to the ear.
You may have inserted a foreign body into your ear, or scraped it with something which wasn't sterile. This could have allowed access for fungus and bacteria, which then multiply in the warm, damp conditions.
As we all know, prevention is better than cure, and there are a few steps that you can take to ensure that your chances of having a repeat infection are reduced.
- Keep your ear dry at all times. Never submerge your head in water, whether bathing or swimming.
- Use earplugs when exposed to water to minimise risk, or fashion some temporary plugs from cotton wool and vaseline or equivalent while showering- this should not be used if submerging the head in water.
- Try to avoid getting sick with a cold or the flu. I know this one seems silly, as no one intentionally gets sick, but it is particularly important to avoid those with colds or flus if you are susceptible to getting ear infections. This will save a lot of earache later on, quite literally!
- Do not insert anything into the ear canal. You may be doing so with good intentions, but chances are you will cause more damage. As previously mentioned, anything that isn't sterile can cause infection. Cotton buds are bad for the ears as they can impact wax and become trapped in the canal. Best to avoid foreign bodies in the ear altogether!
- Do not clean the ears with cotton buds—they can become lodged in the canal, or push wax further into your ear, encouraging a build up where bacteria can breed.
- Try to avoid soap or shampoo getting in your ear—this can cause irritation and skin conditions within the ear which, while not infectious themselves, can cause you to scratch, which will damage the skin and cause further irritation.
Primarily, you should be focusing on pain relief, as the associated pain from an infection can be excruciating. However, it is important to consult a doctor as antibiotic drops, sprays, or capsules may be required, depending on the type of bug that you have.
While the condition isn't deadly in itself, there can be irreparable damage to your eardrum and even loss of hearing if you don't act quickly.
- Reduce swelling. Typically, taking an anti-inflammatory painkiller such as ibuprofen, according to the label instructions, can help reduce the swelling of the drum or canal.
- Reduce temperature by taking regular paracetamol per label instructions. This will also help with pain relief.
- Reduce pain by using a hot water bottle (wrapped in a tea towel or pillow slip) against the affected ear. This works sometimes, depending on the type of infection or ache you have- definitely give it a try.
- If the heat doesn't help, try something cold instead- ie. an icepack or even bag of cold peas wrapped in a tea towel against the affected ear. This can also help reduce the itching in the ear.
- Reduce itching by taking an antihistamine. This reduces the amount of histamine in your body which in turn reduces the itching.
Further Medical Treatment
If the infection is persistent, then medical intervention will be required. Antibiotic pills or drops will be the first port of call, but if these are ineffective then other methods will be considered.
- Clearing the discharge and debris from the ear; A doctor or nurse may clean the ear canal. They do this by using cotton wool on the end of a special stick. This is gently pushed inside the ear canal to mop up any discharge or debris. Some GPs and nurses are trained to do this. Sometimes a referral to an ear specialist is needed. Sometimes gentle suction or syringing is used to remove discharge lying in the ear canal.
- Topical antibiotics once cleaned up: Topical cream or even further ear drops may be prescribed after the cleanup as they can now permeate the affected area. Beforehand, the treatment would have met with a wall of debris, so would have been ineffective. After cleaning, the product can be delivered to the infected site and act much more efficiently.
- A wick: A wick is a piece of gauze material which is soaked in antibiotic drops. It is gently placed in the ear canal by a doctor or nurse. The wick ensures that an antibiotic is always present and reaches the inner part of the ear canal. A wick is usually changed regularly.
There are times where you will have to take particular care when it comes to treatment of ear infections.
- Allergy: If you are allergic to any of the ingredients in the medication or pain treatment you have been recommended, then obviously do not take this. This is particularly true of topical treatments, such as ear drops or creams. Make sure your doctor is aware of any allergies developed so that they do not prescribe anything inadvertently that can cause damage.
- Perforation: If you have a perforation, there are many ear drops that are not suitable as they are harsh on the remaining tissue on the eardrum. This can cause complications and the drops can become trapped in the inner ear. You must also take particular care to ensure the ear remains dry at all times, as water in the ear can cause infection much easier, as the eardrum is no longer there to protect the inner ear.
- Antibiotic Resistance: If you continually take antibiotics to treat an ear infection, you may actually be reducing their effectiveness for future years. Antibiotics are ineffective in most cases of outer ear infections, so taking them could cause resistance with other illnesses later on. Be sure your doctor is aware of the type of infection you have before prescribing a course of treatment.
Have you ever had an ear infection?
If Symptoms Persist...
It is not always possible to completely eradicate an infection, particularly if there are underlying issues causing it.
If you continue to have pain and discomfort for an extended period of time, consult your doctor and request a referral to an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist. They can arrange for tests to be carried out to determine the cause of your infections and then plan for further action if required. Surgery may be an option, depending on the issue. Or, you may discover something completely different is causing your symptoms. Either way, further testing will help you to determine this.
Questions & Answers
© 2015 Lynsey Harte