If you’ve ever had an ear infection, you know they can be annoying and even painful. Although ear infections are often associated with young children, I am living proof that adults also suffer from ear infections.
To date, I’ve had more ear infections as an adult than I can count and have had each of my eardrums rupture due to excessive pressure inside my ears.
For many people, middle ear infections are associated with colds or the flu. An ear infection develops when fluid inside the ear drum builds up and becomes infected. Normally, fluid inside the ear drains through the Eustachian tubes into the throat. But when you have a cold or allergies, the Eustachian tubes can become swollen. This blocks normal drainage from the ears and may allow bacteria to grow in the fluid, causing the infection.
In my case, my Eustachian tubes are narrow, which means I am very prone to fluid buildup in my middle ears.
Here are some symptoms of middle ear infections:
• Loss of appetite – when you swallow, the pressure in your ear changes. With an ear infection, this can be painful and make eating unappealing. This may be particularly obvious in young children, especially those who are bottle feeding.
• Poor sleep – pain may be more apparent when lying down.
• Fever – in children, ear infections can cause temperatures up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit.
• Vertigo – fluid buildup in the ear can affect balance and cause a feeling of spinning or dizziness.
• Difficulty hearing – fluid buildup in the middle ear limits the movement of the eardrum, which can make sounds seem muffled. I associate this with what I feel when changing altitude – the need to get the ears to “pop.”
• Drainage from the ear – the buildup of pressure behind the eardrum can eventually cause the eardrum to rupture, releasing yellow, brown, or white fluid. Pain is usually most acute just prior to the eardrum bursting, and may immediately feel better as the pressure is relieved. The eardrum normally heals on its own.
The first time my eardrum ruptured, I was asleep. I awoke to the sensation that I had a seashell up to my ear – air seemed to be whooshing through my head, making hearing difficult. Although I got used to it and was able to function normally, this sensation lasted several weeks as the eardrum healed. When my second eardrum ruptured years later, I heard a series of small pops that proved to be fluid leaking out of a pinhole in the eardrum. In both cases, my eardrum completely healed over time and I did not lose any hearing as a result.
For most people, ear infections typically resolve themselves with time. You can treat pain symptoms with an appropriate over-the-counter pain medication such as acetaminophen. Warm, moist heat such as a warm damp washcloth or heating pad on the ear may also help. I have also found that cool breezes entering the ear are painful during an infection, so covering the ear with a scarf is comforting.
If you suspect you or your child has an ear infection, your doctor will be able to see discoloration and swelling on your eardrum simply by looking into your outer ear with an otoscope. You can discuss with your doctor whether antibiotics are appropriate or necessary.