What is otitis?

Otitis is a condition that causes inflammation in the outer, middle or inner ear. It is typically caused by an infection and tends to be painful and uncomfortable, although symptoms do vary depending on the type of otitis experienced.

Different types of otitis

There are several different types of otitis that may affect the ear. From the symptoms experienced to the area of the ear affected, each differs in several ways. Some of the most common forms of otitis include:

Otitis media

Most commonly experienced by children, otitis media is a form of ear infection that develops in the small space that sits behind the eardrum.

Also known as a middle ear infection, otitis media is commonly caused by viruses or bacteria.

Otitis media with effusion (OME)

Sometimes referred to as serous otitis media, otitis media with effusion is a condition that develops when an issue with the eustachian tube prevents fluid in the ear from draining normally. It leads to a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum which may be painful and uncomfortable. Unlike the fluid that collects from otitis media, the buildup of fluid caused by otitis media with effusion is typically not infected.

Otitis externa or swimmer's ear

Also known as swimmer’s ear, otitis externa is a form of infection that affects the outer ear canal. Affecting people of all ages, the infection leaves the outer ear feeling inflamed and uncomfortable. It often occurs when the area is left wet for an extended period of time, creating the perfect environment for bacteria and fungi to grow.

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What causes otitis?

The causes of otitis do vary from case to case. The most common causes for each form of otitis are as follows:

Causes of otitis media

Otitis media is commonly caused by an issue with the eustachian tube, a canal that helps to drain fluid out of the ear, leading fluid to collect behind the eardrum. The eustachian tube may become blocked by swelling caused by allergies, colds and other upper respiratory infections, or as a result of an existing physical abnormality. Bacteria or viruses can cause an infection in the middle ear. 

Causes of otitis media with effusion

Otitis media with effusion typically develops in much the same way as otitis media. The main difference, however, is that the fluid that collects within the ear is typically not infected.

Causes of otitis externa

Earning the colloquial name of swimmer’s ear, otitis externa often develops following prolonged exposure to moisture. If the skin is damp for an extended period of time, it creates the right environment for bacteria and fungi to thrive. It may also occur following an abrasion to the outer ear, such as a cut, allowing bacteria to enter the skin.
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How do you treat otitis?

Treatments for otitis vary based on the type of condition experienced. Common treatments for each variant include:

Treatments for otitis media

Otitis media will typically clear on its own, but your healthcare professional may prescribe antibiotics if your symptoms are severe or persistent.

Treatments for otitis media with effusion

Treatment is typically not required for otitis media with effusion, but medical intervention may be required if the fluid in the ear does not drain.

Treatments for otitis externa

Those with a mild case of otitis externa may be prescribed ear drops by their healthcare professional, while more severe cases may require the use of a wick (a small sponge inserted within the ear) to deliver treatment to the affected area.

Home remedies for otitis

In most cases, there aren’t too many home remedies for otitis as most variants tend to get better without the need for intervention. There are, however, a few tips for reducing pain and promoting healing. To help manage the symptoms of otitis media and otitis media with effusion at home, consider using over-the-counter pain relief to help reduce ear pain. A warm compress applied to the ear may also assist in pain relief.

While there aren’t many common home remedies for otitis externa, keeping the ear dry can be a good way to promote healing. If you do experience ear pain, over-the-counter pain relief may help to make you feel more comfortable.

Otitis in children: the most affected

Although adults can be affected by otitis, children are generally more likely to experience otitis media. Otitis media in children is quite common as their eustachian tubes are yet to fully develop. They are not only narrower than those found in adults, but also sit horizontally, making it more difficult for fluid in the ear to drain effectively.

Children also have proportionately larger adenoids than adults, with any swelling to the two small pads of tissue potentially causing a blockage of the eustachian tubes. This is another contributing factor to the high incidence of acute otitis media in children.

Chronic otitis and prevention

Sometimes people will develop chronic versions of otitis media, otitis media with effusion and otitis externa. While not all cases of otitis may be avoidable, some simple behaviours may help to reduce your chances of developing an uncomfortable infection.

Chronic otitis: why?

Although many cases of otitis media, otitis media with effusion and otitis externa will heal on their own and leave no lasting impacts, sometimes people will develop chronic versions of the conditions.

The most common types of chronic otitis media are chronic otitis media and chronic otitis media with effusion. Chronic otitis media occurs when a middle ear infection develops repeatedly or fails to go away within a reasonable period of time. It is often caused by a blockage of the eustachian tubes. The condition is generally not painful but may be accompanied by hearing loss and tympanic membrane perforation if not treated. Chronic otitis media with cholesteatoma, where a cyst develops behind the eardrum, may also develop in some cases. If a cholesteatoma is left untreated, it can grow in size and cause damage to the delicate bones located within the middle ear.

Chronic otitis media with effusion can develop when fluid in the ear fails to drain through the eustachian tubes or continues to collect again and again. As with chronic otitis media, it is commonly caused by a blockage of the eustachian tubes. Chronic otitis media with effusion makes those living with the condition more susceptible to ear infections.

In most cases of chronic otitis externa, the root cause of the recurring infection is a fungal infection. If the infection does not clear on its own, a swab may be taken of the area to determine if a fungal infection is present. Antifungal ear drops may be prescribed to help treat chronic otitis externa if a fungal infection is found to have caused the condition.

How to prevent otitis

While not all cases of otitis may be avoidable, some simple behaviours may help to reduce your chances of developing an uncomfortable infection.

As the condition typically develops alongside other illnesses, such as colds and the flu, one of the best methods of prevention of otitis media is good hygiene. Look to always wash your hands thoroughly, but be sure to pay extra attention at the peak of the cold and flu season.

Several behaviours may help prevent otitis externa, including avoiding swimming in dirty water and using earplugs to stop water from entering your ears while swimming. It’s important to also get into the habit of always drying your ears after bathing and swimming too.

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