What Is an Ear Infection?

ear infection

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  • An ear infection typically happens when bacteria, virus or fungi affect different areas of this organ. It leads to painful fluid buildup and inflammation in the middle ear
  • Although adults can be diagnosed with ear infections, in the U.S., this condition is more prevalent among children

An ear infection typically happens when bacteria, virus or fungi affect different areas of this hearing organ. This often leads to painful fluid buildup and inflammation in the middle ear. In other cases, ear infections may affect and cause pain in the outer and inner portions of the ear.1,2

Ear infections can be acute or chronic.3 Acute ear infections are painful and last for a shorter period of time, while chronic ear infections may either fail to clear up, continuously recur4 or, worse, lead to permanent damage in the middle5 and inner ear.6

What Role Does Age Play in an Ear Infection?

Although adults can be diagnosed with ear infections, in the U.S., this condition is more prevalent among children. In fact, acute otitis media (AOM) or middle ear infection is said to be the most common reason why children visit a doctor. This ear infection typically occurs in children ages 6 to 18 months, and is more frequently seen in boys compared to girls.

Around two-thirds of children will have a middle ear infection by the time they’re 3 years old, and one-third of these children will have had at least three middle ear infections. The earlier a child is diagnosed with an ear infection, the more susceptible they are for recurrent infections.7

Furthermore, otitis media with effusion (OME) or the appearance of a thick or sticky fluid behind the eardrum in the middle ear,8 is very common in children aged 6 months to 4 years old. At some point, 90 percent of children have OME, and more than half of children are likely to have OME before they reach 2 years old.

However, once children grow, their ear structures may enlarge and their immune systems can develop better. By the time a child is 16 months old, their risk for recurrent ear infections lessens, and by age 5, most children have a significantly lower susceptibility for ear infections.9

9 Ear Infection Risk Factors

Aside from age, other factors that can increase a person’s risk for ear infections include:10

Weather — Ear infections may occur more during the fall and winter.

Allergies — Some allergies may trigger inflammation in the body’s airways and lead to ear infections. In a few cases, an allergy or intolerance to cow’s milk and other dairy products may be a factor in the development of ear infections. An allergy may cause immune responses or reactions even in the smallest amount. However, a causal relationship between allergies and ear infections is yet to be definitively established.

Exposure to other children with respiratory infections — While ear infections aren’t contagious, the respiratory infections that happen before these can be transmitted to other children in places like day care and school.

Exposure to secondhand cigarette smokeChildren whose parents are smokers or who are often exposed to other adults who smoke may have an increased risk of developing middle ear infections. Smoke can irritate the Eustachian tube and inhibit the ability of the cilia (hair-like structures) along the breathing passageways to eliminate germs. Once the cilia fail to work properly, viruses and secretions may be trapped in these passages.

Bottle-feeding, especially when lying down — Bottle-fed babies may have an increased risk for middle ear infections. Milk may drain through the Eustachian tube and enter the middle ear, where it may develop into a possible bacteria breeding ground.

Using pacifiers — The sucking motion during pacifier use raises saliva production and allows bacteria to travel up to the Eustachian tubes and to the middle ear. This may increase a child’s risk for ear infections.

ObesityThis has been linked to a higher possibility for middle ear infections.

Heredity — A history of ear infections, whether in parents or siblings, can predispose a person to similar problems too. Some family members may have a similar body structure that makes it more or less difficult to experience ear infections.

Having pets — Allergens in the air, some of which may come from pets, can build up in the middle ear and trigger infections.

Take note that some viruses may increase inflammation in the middle ear and also disrupt antibiotics’ efficacy in addressing bacteria-caused ear infections. An HIV diagnosis or immunocompromised system can raise the risk for ear infections too.11

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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