Earache is one of the most common conditions people suffer from at least once in their lives. What most people don’t know, however, is that earache is just the general term for either of the two conditions of ear infections: the otitis externa (more commonly known as “swimmer’s ear”) and the otitis media. Of the two, the former is the more common, and is usually what most people refer to when they have an ear infection.
Lending Your Ears
Otitis externa is an inflammation on the outer ear (hence “externa”) and the ear canal. The inflammation can be due to several reasons: it can be from dermatitis, or an infection caused by a bacteria or microbe. In both cases, the skin in the canal swells and become painful when touched.
Infections happen when water dilutes the acidity in your ear lining that usually protects it from bacteria and fungi. Normally, water flows in out of your ear without any problems. Your ear’s shape tips the fluid out; that’s why you can nearly always bathe, swim, or frolic in the rain without a problem, even though your ear’s opening is large and deep. However, there are times when excess moisture assaults your ears, resulting in water getting trapped in your ear canal. The skin inside your ear becomes soggy and the acidity that is normally present in the lining becomes diluted. When the lining is cut, either accidentally or through an injury, bacteria can penetrate your skin, causing the familiar pain and swelling that is called swimmer’s ear. When there is an inclusion of eardrum rupture, swimmer’s ear is then called otitis media.
Otitis externa can be acute or chronic. Acute otitis externa is usually microbial in nature, and involves infection. It can occur suddenly, get worse, and is usually alarmingly painful. In the worst cases, the infection can spread to the jaw joint and the facial tissues that surround the parotid gland, making chewing a painful experience. Chronic otitis externa, on the other hand, is usually non-microbial and is the result of chronic dermatitis or irritation from cleaning the canal, often with swabs or Q-tips. Chronic otitis externa may or may not be painful. Mild swelling, itching, and seepage can also be present.
The signs and symptoms associated with swimmer’s ear usually manifest within a few days after exposure to whatever irritant is causing the infection. The symptoms may include:
- Severe pain, which is experienced when you move your outer ear, or when you push the tragus (the little bump that is in front of your ear);
- Over all discomfort in or around the affected ear;
- Itching on the outer ear;
- Feeling of stuffiness in the ear;
- Pus draining from the ear;
- Temporary decreased hearing.
Getting Rid of an Ear Infection
In order to fully get rid of the ear infection, you have to address the infection itself. Here are a couple of things you can do to that end:
- Clean your ear. The outer ear and ear canal can be cleaned of any drainage and skin flakes in order to get the topical medications to work more effectively. However, don’t do it yourself; you may actually do more harm than good. Instead, have your doctor do the cleaning. He or she can perform this via suction cups or a cotton-tipped probe. If you have to do it yourself, ask your doctor for the proper procedure in doing so.
- Use heat therapy. A warm heating pad placed over your ear encourages your glands to produce more wax and relieve the pain. The heat will also cause the veins and capillaries in and around your ear to dilate, encouraging blood flow and allowing the white blood cells to reach the infected area and fight off the infection.
- Use antibiotic medications. Topical or oral antibiotics can help in fighting off the infection. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotic eardrops and corticosteroids to reduce the swelling and itching.
- Use medications for pain control. For pain control medications, take acetaminophen, aspirin, or ibuprofen. Keep in mind that if you’re suffering from other conditions such as heartburn or ulcers, consult with your doctor before taking oral antibiotics, especially ibuprofen. They may worsen your other conditions.
- Change your lifestyle for the duration of the condition. While your ear infection is still healing, refrain from activities that may cause water to get into your ear. Activities such as swimming and scuba diving should be kept at a minimum (or avoided altogether) at least until your infection clears.
It is easy to prevent getting ear infection. Unlike other diseases, contracting ear infection is totally under your control. Here are some tips to avoid getting swimmer’s ear infection:
- Avoid putting foreign objects in your ear. Things like paper clips, hairpins, or even cotton swabs should never be used to dig out hardened ear wax. They can pack the materials deeper instead. Your normal ear canal has a self-cleaning and self-drying mechanism so you really don’t need to clean it out every day. If you have to clean your ear, have a professional do it instead.
- Keep your ears dry. After exposure to moisture either from bathing or swimming, make sure to dry your ears thoroughly. Use a soft towel or cloth. Never insert your finger or other foreign objects in your ear to dry it.
- Use earplugs, but with caution. There are earplugs for sale that are designed to keep water out of your ears when you go swimming or diving. However, there are some things you need to keep in mind. Some earplugs are ill-fitting and hard and they can scratch your ear canal. Also, clean your earplugs after every use. Better yet, get disposable ones.
Your ear is a very vital organ. Without it, your world will be a much livelier place. While ear infections are mostly curable and are rarely serious, it is still better to avoid them altogether. Take care of your ear, and you will continue hearing the beauty of the world for a long time to come.
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