The ear is one of the most important organs in the body. Most people associate it with the sense of hearing, but the inner parts of it have other important functions such as helping in balance. This delicate organ can, however, be an entry point for an infection that can range from the mild to deadly.
A lot of people think of the ear as principally the visible part, which in truth is known as the outer ear or pinna. It also includes the auditory canal, which leads to the eardrum.
The middle ear consists of the eardrum and the three tiny bones that transmit the sound waves in a form that can be interpreted by the brain. These bones are the incus, malleus, and stapes (in layman language, they are called; the hammer, anvil, and stirrup- so named because their shape is similar to these objects.
The inner ear consists of the cochlea, which is shaped like the shell of a snail. Its function is to turn the vibrations from the three bones into sensory information that can then be interpreted by the brain.
Apart from the function of hearing, the inner ear is also responsible for balance. This function is found in the semicircular canals that are filled with fluid.
Movement of the fluid in these canals is detected by microscopic hairs, which then pass the message to nerves for onward transmission to the brain. The brain is then able to instruct the body to take the proper position.
This is the area that is messed up by alcohol when a drunkard staggers! There is also a tube that drains fluid from the middle ear to the back of the throat and is known as the eustachian or auditory tube. This tube also regulates the pressure in the middle ear so that it balances with the atmospheric pressure.
When it opens, you normally hear a popping sound. This change in pressure is familiar if you are traveling in a vehicle or plane in a mountainous region. Other ways to open this tube are reflex actions such as swallowing and yawning.
Infections of the ear are more common and risky in children than in adults. One of the reasons is believed to be the underdeveloped immune systems of children. The angle of the auditory tube in children is more horizontal than in an adult, making it easier for infections to spread from the throat to the ear.
It is also shorter in a child, which means germs from the throat travel a shorter distance for them to infect the ear. Since infections to the ear can get in through the outer ear or auditory tube, it explains why cases of ear infection are so widespread.
So, how does one get an ear infection? The causative agents for infection of the ear are usually bacteria or viruses. Bacteria can often be controlled or eliminated using antibiotics. Viruses, on the other hand, are not cured. Instead, the body usually fights them off through the immune system mechanisms. The severity of the symptoms can, however, be lessened through medication.
The auditory tube is the channel through which infection moves from the throat to the ear. Allergies, acid reflux, and cold or sore throats could cause the tube to become inflamed and swell, leading to blockage. As a result, the mucus which is in the middle ear does not drain as it should.
Instead, it becomes a breeding ground for the germs that caused the infection. Soon, the mucus fills with pus, which also sets in the middle ear. This infection is referred to as otitis media and can be very painful as the pus builds-up and pushes on the eardrum. In extreme cases, the pressure can rupture it.
Signs of middle ear infection in children could include a fever, pain, and discomfort. This could lead to difficulty in feeding, drinking, and sleeping. The reason is that chewing, sucking, and other mouth movements cause pain. Lying on the side of the inflamed ear can cause lead to pressure to be put on it, leading to pain. A baby will usually tug on such an ear and cry. An older child will complain of pain.
Apart from viruses and bacteria, other causes of ear infection are smoke, bottle feeding, and the use of pacifiers. Although ear infections are generally not contagious, illnesses that bring them about are. For this reason, parents should be on the lookout for cold weather when colds and flu are rife.
It would also be a good idea to avoid places where children are congested such as daycare centers. The sooner a person is treated for an ear infection, the higher the likelihood of an early cure.
Of course, adults also suffer from an ear infection, and the causes of such are more or less the same as in children. When you go to a doctor complaining of ear discomfort or pain, the first thing he does is carry out a physical examination using a small instrument known as an otoscope. It looks like a small flashlight and is meant to help examine the eardrum.
Most doctors prefer not to give antibiotics immediately a patient complains of ear pain. This is because antibiotics do not cure viral infections and might even create resistant strains of germs if misused. Furthermore, most ear infections will clear on their own.
Besides, antibiotics do not clear fluid buildup in the middle ear. Pain medication is, instead, prescribed as the doctor waits to see if more intensive treatment will be necessary.
Intervention becomes necessary, depending on how severe the infection is and what has caused it. Other considerations are how long the infection has lasted, the patient’s age, if it poses a risk, whether the infection has been recurring, and the risk it poses to hearing.
Preventative measures to combat infection should include; breastfeeding babies exclusively for at least six months to build their immunity, not exposing babies to second-hand smoke, and maintaining high levels of hygiene. Parents should also ensure that their children are fully immunized. Bottle feeding should be done when the baby is lying at an angle and not flat.
Finally, prevention of ear infection is possible if you follow health guidelines. However, if you or your child does get ill, you need the assistance of a good ENT doctor. The Becker ENT center in Philadelphia is your best option. They can be contacted here.