Ears 101: Ear Infections

Last week, we introduced the Ears 101 series and explored the basic anatomy of the ear. This week we are going to talk about those pesky ear infections! Namely, we want to know what do people actually mean when they talk about an ear infection?

The phrase “ear infection” is used commonly and without much distinction, but there are actually two different varieties of ear infections: otitis media and otitis externa. Otitis media refers to inflammation in the middle ear, whereas otitis externa is inflammation in the external ear canal (see anatomy basics). For now, we will explore otitis media since it is the type most people are speaking about when they say “ear infection.”

So, we’ve learned that otitis media is inflammation in the middle ear, but what is behind the inflammation?

Usually, the culprit is either bacteria or fluid build-up in the middle ear. There are two main distinguishable subtypes with their own unique symptoms to lookout for:

1. Acute otitis media (AOM), the most common type of ear infection, is caused by bacteria entering into the middle ear through fluid build-up in the eustachian tube.

Signs and symptoms of an AOM include: redness and pain, a bulging tympanic membrane, fever, and fussiness or trouble sleeping in younger children. Both adults and children can get an AOM, but they occur more frequently in children. Commonly, an AOM develops after a cold, sore throat, or an upper respiratory infection.

A photo of an acute otitis media (AOM) captured by the CellScope Oto.

A photo of an acute otitis media (AOM) captured by the CellScope Oto.

2. Otitis media with effusion (OME) is referred to as the silent otitis media because often patients don’t exhibit any symptoms. An OME exhibits inflammation without infection and is characterized by fluid build-up (or effusion) in the eustachian tube, which can be thin or thick and gooey. The thick fluid is oddly referred to as ear glue.

Signs and symptoms of an OME include the feeling of stuffiness in the ear or “being underwater”. There is usually no pain associated with an OME and it can come before or after a bout with AOM.

A photo of otitis media with effusion (OME) captured by the CellScope Oto.

A photo of otitis media with effusion (OME) captured by the CellScope Oto.

Now that we’ve cleared up the mystery behind the words “ear infection” and uncovered the different subtypes of otitis media, we can move on to tackle the burning question, “what causes ear infections?” in the next installment of Ears 101.

Have an ear question you’d like answered? Submit your questions in the comments.

Disclaimer: This information is meant for educational purposes only; none of the above information should be viewed as medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.

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