Middle ear infections result from a bacterial or viral infection in the middle ear as well as a blockage in the Eustachian tube – the tube that runs from the middle ear to the back of the nose and usually drains fluid produced in the middle ear. Several factors can cause this blockage, including allergies; extra saliva or mucus produced during teething, cold or sinus infections; enlarged or infected adenoids or irritation from tobacco smoke. Children and infants are more likely to suffer from a middle ear infection because their Eustachian tubes can be easily blocked, but a middle ear infection may also occur in adults. For children ages 2 or older and adults who are otherwise healthy with only mild symptoms, a wait-and-see approach for the first 48 to 72 hours is often recommended when deciding to seek treatment.
Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear canal – the area from the opening of the ear to the eardrum. It is usually caused by water or moisture that stays in the ear canal after swimming. Short-term, or acute swimmer’s ear occurs when bacteria grows in this moist, dark environment. Cuts or scratches in the canal can cause breaks in the skin that also allow bacteria to grow. These cuts/scratches are most commonly caused by the use of cotton swabs or hairpins, scratching the inside of your ear canal with a fingernail, or inserting things into your ears such as hearing aids or earphones. Chronic or persistent otitis externa is often caused by fungal infection. See your doctor if you think you or your child may have swimmer’s ear.
Inner ear infections are much less common and relatively rare. If you have an inner ear infection you are likely to experience hearing loss and dizziness. If you are experiencing symptoms not tied to another illness, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor.