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How To Prevent Ear Infections and Protect Your Hearing Health

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Ear infections can be awful, especially if your child is in pain or bulging eardrums are a recurring problem you’re dealing with. Many people who get painful ear infections see them as a side effect of flu or a virus they just have to live with – which is a common misconception. If you or your child are susceptible to ear infections, there are ways to protect yourself and your loved ones, and reduce the risk of getting ear infections. 

To help you and your family on your way to better hearing health, we’ve created a guide on the causes of ear infections, common symptoms, risks and preventive measures. 

Causes of ear infections

Firstly, it is good to have some understanding of what causes an ear infection in the first place. Ear infections can be caused by bacteria or a virus and may cause fluid to develop behind the eardrum often causing pain. 

The part of the ear behind your eardrum is called the middle ear. This space is usually ventilated from air through the eustachian tube. This tube connects the middle ear to the back of your throat. Bacteria can travel via the eustachian tube into the middle ear space. When bacteria and fluid build up in the middle ear space, an infection can result. 

Why are ear infections so common in children?

Very young children can be particularly susceptible to ear infections as their eustachian tube is still very soft and flat which does not easily allow any fluid in the middle ear to drain out. Adults are also at risk of ear infections with ear infections being one of the most common secondary infections resulting from flu. 

These types of ear infections commonly referred to as “glue ear” are known as otitis media and are usually treated successfully with antibiotics. However, if left untreated ear infections can become serious and damage your hearing permanently. Unfortunately, new microbial strains of bacteria which cause these ear infections are becoming more and more resistant to the antibiotics used to treat them and there is no vaccine. Doing your best to prevent ear infections, therefore becomes even more important.

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Symptoms of ear infections

The symptoms of an ear infection depend on the type, but may include:

  • Pain in the ear (sharp and sudden or dull and continuous)
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Ear discharge 
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Vertigo 
  • Mild hearing loss
  •  The sensation that sound is muffled
  • Irritability, crying  and disrupted sleep in children who are unable to communicate that they have a sore ear

Are you worried about your child’s hearing? Learn about the signs of hearing loss in children of all ages and find out where you can get your child’s hearing tested.

Risks of ear infections

If left untreated, ear infections can lead to serious health complications, including:

However, there are ways to protect yourself and reduce the risk of developing an ear infection. 

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6 tips for reducing the risk of developing an ear infection 

1. Hygiene

One of the simplest ways to protect your ears from infection is to have a good standard of hygiene. The basic principles for good hygiene start with hand washing. We constantly use our hands to touch objects, handle food, eat, touch our faces and much more. Bacteria accompanies us constantly and is on all surfaces. 

Washing our hands after touching objects and surfaces handled by others, before and after using the bathroom and whenever you have come into direct contact with someone such as shaking their hand. This basic hygiene routine will go a long way to reduce the transmission of germs.

2. Flu vaccines

Recent evidence has shown that taking protective measures against flu with a vaccine produced  4 per cent fewer cases of otitis media ear infections. Although this reduction is small, it does show that getting vaccinated as a protective measure against the flu can reduce the occurrence of ear infections both in adults and children. 

Earlier evidence has also found that the bacteria streptococcus pneumoniae, a flu causing bacteria, can be vaccinated against and can reduce the likelihood of secondary ear infections. Although flu strains change the most common bacteria now have effective vaccines which can help to protect you and your children by reducing your risk of ear infections which commonly occur with flu.

3. Swimming

A common way to pick up ear infections is while swimming. Many people are unsure of how to protect their ears in the water. It’s important to exercise good ear hygiene in the water especially when swimming in natural waters where bacteria breed, such as rivers. If you are using a public pool or have one at home always make sure that they are well maintained. 

When you are swimming try to keep your ears dry as you can. There are some good ways to do this with swimming plugs and bathing caps which you can purchase from your pharmacy. It is important to see your audiologist to discuss this as your audiologist may advise you to wear swim plugs that are custom made for your ears. This is the best option as they are durable and moulded exactly to the shape of your ears. 

Always ensure that you dry your ears thoroughly after swimming. It is best to do this with a towel rather than cotton tips as cotton tips can push any ear wax deep into your ear and trap any residual water behind the wax. Ear drying drops are available from your pharmacist may also be used but do not use these if you have any perforation to your eardrums.

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4. Air pollutants and smoking

Ambient air pollution is a known contributor to ear infections often occurring as a secondary in upper respiratory infections. Protect yourself by avoiding areas where you know the air quality is poor, such as areas where traffic pollution is high, around factories and keep away from inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke. 

Smoking is one of the main causes of respiratory infections which frequently lead to ear infections. Parents who smoke can greatly affect the other family members, and young children and pregnant mothers who are exposed to cigarette smoke are especially at risk. 

If you are pregnant you should take care not to smoke. Inhaling second-hand smoke and other air pollutants can be harmful to you and your developing baby and may increase your baby’s susceptibility to postnatal infections. 

5. Eating and drinking

One of the easiest ways to protect your children from ear infections is to ensure that they are sitting upright when eating and drinking, especially when they are infants. Little children may be bottle-fed lying down or in a semi-sitting or lying position. Like this, they frequently fall asleep with their bottle. 

This can allow the liquid to enter the eustachian tube which connects the middle ear space to the back of the throat. The liquid can travel through the tube and enter the middle ear resulting in an ear infection. 

Evidence shows that one of the best things you can do to protect your child against ear infections and respiratory tract infections is to breastfeed for six months or longer. Breastfeeding for at least six months can not only protect your child against ear infections at this age but also from recurrent ear infections that can continue into early childhood.

6. Untreated allergies

If you notice that you often have irritation or congestion in your nose or throat, a feeling that your ears are blocked, or maybe you have ear pain, then you may have an allergy. It is important to get tested so that you know what your allergy is caused by. Allergies that are left untreated can cause chronic sinusitis and other secondary conditions due to the bacteria in your nose and throat. 

This can lead to fluid developing in your middle ear resulting in ear pain and ear infections. You can easily protect yourself against ear infections resulting from allergies by getting yourself tested so that you can treat and avoid the cause. Treatments may include decongestants or nasal sprays but prompt treatment may protect you from ear infections and more severe medications like antibiotics.

In a Nutshell

Ear infections are often painful and if left untreated can cause hearing loss, perforated eardrums and lead to other conditions. Therefore, it is so important to take preventative and protective action to reduce your risk of ear infection. 

The steps are easy but if you are unsure of how to protect your hearing and ears from infection, book an appointment with your audiologist who can discuss your concerns with you and identify any risk factors for ear infections that may be relevant to you.

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