Otitis—how to distinguish between types to better treat it!

Otitis is a well-known infection, especially because it is very common. Did you know that there are different types of otitis and that their treatments greatly differ? By learning to distinguish between them, you will be better equipped to get your child back on track.

Anatomy of the ear

The ear consists of three parts; each of which is important for hearing:

  • outer ear
  • middle ear
  • inner ear

The ear canal runs from the outer ear to a membrane called the eardrum. This canal and the visible portion of the ear form the outer ear, which collects sound.

Once sound is sent to the eardrum, the eardrum vibrates and sends this vibration to a cavity, which is in fact the middle ear. The middle ear is also connected to the back of the mouth and nasal cavities by a tube called the "eustachian tube", which helps to balance the pressure in the middle ear.

The inner ear is the portion of the ear that sends the auditory information to the brain. The inner ear is also responsible for balance.

Types of otitis (ear infections)

In reality, otitis is an infection of a part of the ear that can be caused by a bacteria or a virus. There are two main types of otitis.

External otitis, commonly called "swimmer's ear", affects the auditory canal. It gets its name from the fact that it is often due to excessive moisture in the external ear, which often occurs after swimming. This moisture promotes the development of bacteria.

Otitis media affects the cavity located behind the eardrum (middle ear) and is often caused by a virus or bacteria that travels to the middle ear through the eustachian tube, especially after a cold.

Signs and symptoms

Pain is the main symptom of an ear infection, whether it is external otitis or otitis media. If it is external otitis, pain may increase when the earlobe is pulled which is generally not the case for otitis media. 

In young children, pain is often reflected by various signs:

  • they frequently pull on their ear
  • they are irritable and cry more easily than usual
  • they have a reduced appetite
  • they don't sleep as well as they usually do

Furthermore, an ear infection can cause the following symptoms:

  • feeling of having a blocked ear
  • ear discharge
  • changes in hearing
  • fever (especially with otitis media)

Risk factors

To know the risk factors of external otitis, read the following text: Swimmer's ear: strategies to avoid the unpleasant symptoms.

Otitis media mainly affects young children. Their eustachian tube is narrower and more horizontal, which promotes the accumulation of secretions and the development of bacteria in the middle ear. As children grow, the anatomy of the eustachian tube changes, decreasing the risk of an ear infection.

Because of hereditary predisposition or particularities, some children may be more prone to ear infections. For instance, this may be the case for children who:

  • are born prematurely
  • have some type of allergy
  • were not breastfed
  • attend a daycare
  • are exposed to second-hand smoke

It should be noted that, although children are more at risk, adults can also suffer from an ear infection.

Treatment and prevention

Treatment of an ear infection varies depending on the part of the ear that is affected. External otitis can usually be treated with antibiotic drops. For additional information about the prevention and treatment of this type of ear infection, read the following text: Swimmer's ear: strategies to avoid the unpleasant symptoms.

Unfortunately, otitis media cannot be treated with drops, as the eardrum acts as a barrier which stops the drops from travelling to their target. Thus, antibiotics must be taken by mouth.

An antibiotic is not always given right away, as an ear infection often heals on its own in a few days. Therefore, if your child is older than six months and symptoms are mild, your doctor may recommend careful observation instead of immediate treatment. If an antibiotic is prescribed, follow the pharmacist's instructions concerning the dose, the frequency of the doses, and the specific precautions to be taken to preserve the medication.

In all cases, using pain medication, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain and/or fever, is recommended. Your pharmacist can help you determine the dose to give to your child for adequate relief according to his/her age and weight, in addition to the frequency of administration. It is preferable to consult your pharmacist about dosage rather than simply following the manufacturer's recommendations on the product label.

Complications

Contrary to popular belief, an ear infection rarely causes serious complications. However, when an ear infection persists for a long period of time or when there are repeated infections, hearing problems can occur.

In such cases, other treatments may sometimes be considered. For instance, ear tubes may be used for recurring ear infections. This type of tube, which is placed through the eardrum, allows liquid to drain out of the middle ear and reduce the risk of infection.

In any case, if you think your child has as ear infection, see a healthcare professional. An in-depth assessment is necessary to determine what the appropriate treatment should be. Don't hesitate to talk to your pharmacist about it. He/she can offer you advice, direct you to certain resources, and above all, inform you about the optimal and safe use of medications. Chances are, your pharmacist's sound advice to restore your child's health will be music to your ears!

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Otitis—how to distinguish between types to better treat it!

Otitis is a well-known infection, especially because it is very common. Did you know that there are different types of otitis and that their treatments greatly differ? By learning to distinguish between them, you will be better equipped to get your child back on track.
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