What Are the Types of Ear Infections You Must Know About?

otitis media

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  • Acute otitis media is triggered by bacteria that move to the middle ear from fluid trapped in the Eustachian tube (connecting the middle ear to the nose and upper throat)
  • Chronic otitis media is characterized by chronic eardrum rupture that may exhibit ongoing but uninfected drainage, or a dry and perforated eardrum without infection or drainage

There are different ear infections that can target people of various ages. The most common of these types, especially among young children, is otitis media or middle ear infections, which can be either acute or chronic:1

Acute otitis media (AOM) — This is triggered by bacteria that move to the middle ear from fluid trapped in the Eustachian tube (connecting the middle ear to the nose and upper throat). AOM can develop during or after a cold or the flu, although it may also occur because of other factors that can raise a person’s risk for developing bacterial and viral infections in the middle ear.

Young children usually develop AOM because their Eustachian tubes are more horizontal and don’t drain well. Parents must be cautious if a child is affected with AOM, especially during the early stages of infancy, since infections can recur as the child ages.

Chronic otitis media — According to the Milton S. Hershey Medical Center at Penn State, this infection is characterized by chronic eardrum rupture that may exhibit ongoing but uninfected drainage, or a dry and perforated eardrum without infection or drainage.

If there is persistent inflammation in the middle ear or mastoids (rounded bone located behind the ear), alongside a chronic eardrum rupture with pus-like drainage, then the patient has chronic suppurative otitis media.

Here’s What You Should Know About an Otitis Media With Effusion (OME)

Another type of middle ear infection to watch out for is otitis media with effusion (OME), wherein a fluid called an effusion gathers in the middle ear, although it does not show indicators of an infection. The fluid, which can be called “glue ear,” tends to be sticky in chronic and severe infections.

While this ear infection isn’t painful, some children with OME may complain of hearing difficulties or a “plugging up” or feeling of stuffiness in the ears. Children may also be constantly affected with OME, and have frequent episodes during their first two years of life.2

Most cases tend to resolve on their own in around four to six weeks,3 and only 5 to 10 percent of OME episodes last longer than a year. However, 30 to 40 percent of children may experience recurrent episodes, so if your child has OME, seek medical attention immediately.4

What Are Outer Ear Infections?

Patients can also be diagnosed with an outer ear infection or otitis externa, often characterized by an infection on the outer opening of the ear or on the ear canal.

One of the most common types of an outer ear infection is swimmer’s ear, or acute otitis externa, that may develop when water gets trapped in the ear. Water can serve as a breeding ground for both bacteria and fungi. An outer ear infection can also occur when a person violently scratches or cleans their ears.5

Inner Ear Infections Are a Cause for Concern

The labyrinth, or the innermost portion of the ear where you can find the cochlea and vestibular system, may be infected as well, in a condition known as labyrinthitis. This means there is inflammation or irritation affecting the mechanisms responsible for hearing and providing a sense of balance.6 Inner ear infections can be attributed to the following:7

  • Viral infections — This often follows a viral infection like the cold or flu, as it may spread from the chest, nose, mouth and airways, and move toward the inner ear. Other viral infections that can lead to labyrinthitis, albeit rarely, include measles, mumps or glandular fever.
  • Bacterial infections — Although these are uncommon, bacteria-caused inner ear infections are more likely to develop among young children and are very serious. Bacteria can enter the inner ear once there is a breakage in the membranes separating the middle ear from your inner ear. This can happen if a patient has a middle ear infection or has meningitis (infection of the brain lining).

In some cases, Autoimmune Inner Ear Disease (AIED) may develop in people diagnosed with these kinds of diseases, wherein the immune system’s antibodies or immune cells mistakenly attack the inner portion of the ear. AIED is rare and is responsible for less than 1 percent of hearing impairments or dizziness.8

What Does It Mean if You Have Fungal Ear Infections?

Fungal ear infections, or otomycosis, are ear infections that may occur in people who:

  • Live in warm or tropical areas
  • Swim frequently
  • Have been diagnosed with diabetes
  • Have other chronic medical and skin conditions

As the name implies, this ear infection is mainly caused by fungi, particularly Candida and Aspergillus.9 According to the book “Fungal Infection: Diagnosis and Management,” a fungal ear infection usually affects the external ear canal, but it can result in complications inside the middle ear too.10

Other Types of Ear Infections You May Be Affected With

Take note of other variations of this disease that, while not necessarily common, may cause pain in a patient too:11

  • Infectious myringitis — Bacteria or viruses can trigger infections in the eardrum, leading to the development of small and painful blisters. If fever occurs alongside this ear infection, the cause is bacterial.
  • Acute mastoiditis — An acute middle ear infection may result in an infection of the mastoid bone, which can be seen immediately behind the ear.
  • Vestibular neuronitis — A viral infection causes an inflammation of the vestibular nerve, or the pathway that connects the brain to the vestibular system in the ear, which is responsible for proper body balancing.
  • Herpes zoster of the ear — This develops when the herpes zoster virus targets and causes an infection of the cochlear nerve responsible for sending sound (as electrical impulses) toward the brain.

People with new ear piercings may be at risk of infection as well, as the piercing itself is an open wound. There are several factors that can lead to ear piercing infections:12,13

  • Coming into contact with dirty hands or instruments that touched the piercing
  • Earrings are placed on too tightly, with no room for the wound to breathe and heal
  • Too much handling of the piercing, especially with dirty hands
  • Not wearing gloves during ear piercing14
  • Use of unsterile instruments
  • Posts themselves weren’t sterile

While anyone who gets an earlobe piercing may be at risk for an infection,15 the possibility can increase among people who have had cartilage piercings done. These piercings are done on the harder portions of the ear, have a long healing time16 and are typically more prone to an infection.17

MORE ABOUT EAR INFECTION

Ear Infection: An Introduction

What Is an Ear Infection?

Ear Infection Symptoms

Ear Infection Causes

Types of Ear Infection

Ear Infection in Babies and Children

Are Ear Infections Contagious?

Ear Infection Treatment

Essential Oils for Ear Infection

Ear Infection Prevention

Ear Infection FAQ

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