Ear infections occurring behind the ear drum are called otitis media, or “middle ear infections”. These infections usually result from the ear’s natural pressure-releasing valve (called the “eustachian tube”) becoming obstructed allowing pressure and fluid to accumulate within the ear. These ear infections are very painful and cause temporary hearing loss. They can result in eardrum rupture, scarring in the ear structures, and even more severe infections like meningitis. Typically ear infections can be treated with antibiotics, but may require an evaluation for allergy and sinus issues (because the eustachian tube is ultimately to blame) and may require treatment with ear tube placement.
Outer Ear Infections & Swimmer’s Ear
The ear canal connecting the outside world to the ear drum is another common site of infection, especially in adults. This infection is called otitis externa, and is usually a result of retained moisture within the ear (from showering or swimming). Chronic eczema (itching) of the ear canal is also a substantial risk factor. This infection is treated with antibiotics, occasionally debridement of the ear canal, and long-term prevention of moisture build up and itching.
Non-Infectious Referred Ear Pain
Pain that originates elsewhere but feels like ear pain is called “referred otalgia.” This is often missed by emergency clinics or primary care physicians (because ears are tricky!) but represents a lot of the ongoing “ear infections” we see. Ear pain with a normal-appearing ear may be the result of neck problems, TMJ syndrome, jaw pain, migraines, or even throat cancer. None of these problems will improve with ear drops or ear tubes and all require more advanced diagnostic examination in our office.