Earaches: Swimmer’s Ear vs. Middle Ear Infection

Ear disorders are common among children. There are two different types of ear infections: otitis externa (often called swimmer’s ear) and otitis media. It is important to recognize the differences between these two types of infections to prevent or treat them effectively.

About Swimmer’s Ear

Otitis Externa affects the outer ear canal. Many people also refer to this as swimmer’s ear,  although swimming is only one cause of this type of infection. In otitis externa there is inflammation to the outer ear canal, the area in front of the tympanic membrane (ear drum). This is the area that you can feel when you stick your finger in your ear. These infections are common in the summer months and frequent swimming is often the culprit.

Symptoms and Treatments for Swimmer’s Ear

Symptoms of otitis externa include pain in the ear lobe and when touching the external ear. Many children also complain of itching and may have discharge coming from the ear. Drainage is frequently associated with swimmer’s ear, which makes it crucial to bring patients to their health care provider immediately for proper diagnosis and treatment. The infections are treated with prescription ear drops and occasionally even oral antibiotics. In extreme cases when there is too much inflammation to allow the drops to be inserted into the ear, an ear wick may have to be inserted in the canal to keep it open. Swimmer’s ear many be prevented by applying a mixture of 1 part white vinegar and 1 part rubbing alcohol into the ear canal after swimming and drying the ears with a hair dryer on the cool setting.

For tips on how to prevent Swimmer’s Ear and Middle Ear Infections, click here.

Other Types of Ear Infections

Apart from swimmer’s ear, other types of ear infections fall under the category of otitis media, which is further divided into acute otitis media and serous otitis media.

About Acute Middle Ear Infections

Acute otitis media or an acute middle ear infection is what people typically think of with they hear “ear infection.” The ear infection is behind the tympanic membrane/ear drum where tiny bones transmit vibrations that go to the hearing organs in the inner ear. The middle ear is directly connected to the back of the throat by the Eustachian tube. The Eustachian tube may become inflamed when a child has a cold or even allergies. Swelling in this tube does not allow the fluid to drain from the ear, causing an ear infection.

Symptoms and Treatments for Acute Middle Ear Infections

Acute middle ear infections are very painful and may result in pus filling the area behind the tympanic membrane. Symptoms often include a ringing in the ear or fever. It is important to adequately treat an acute middle ear infection as prolonged ear infections may lead to permanent hearing impairment. In this case, tubes may be inserted into the eardrum preventing fluid accumulation. In severe cases, the pressure may become so great that the eardrum ruptures, resulting in blood or mucous draining from the middle ear. A ruptured eardrum can be quite painful and should be evaluated by a health care professional immediately.

Oral antibiotics may be necessary for middle ear infections. Prescription ear drops do not help middle ear infections. In cases of extremely painful middle ear infections, prescription ear numbing drops may be prescribed.

About Serous Otitis Media Ear Infections

The third type of middle ear condition is called serous otitis media. Serous otitis media is when sterile, clear (not pus filled) fluid accumulates behind the tympanic membrane. This may result in the ears feeling clogged. Antibiotics are not needed for this type of ear condition, but decongestants and nasal steroid sprays may be prescribed to help open the Eustachian tube and drain the fluid from the middle ear. This type of fluid accumulation is also important to treat because prolonged fluid in the middle ear may result in hearing loss. In extreme cases that do not respond to treatment, ear tubes may be inserted.

It can be difficult to completely prevent ear infections in children, especially children who spend a lot of time in the water. Knowing the symptoms of ear infections can help you know when to seek medical attention for your child. Adequately treatment is important as prolonged ear infections may lead to permanent hearing impairment, causing difficulty with speech and language development. With proper treatment, children can recover from an ear infection without any permanent damage to their hearing.

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