Ear Conditions: An Overview

Everything you need to know about ear problems, including their causes, common symptoms and treatment paths.

What causes ear problems?

The most common ear conditions or infections occur when the Eustachian tubes – connecting the ear to the back of the throat – swell or become blocked as a result of any of the following:

  • Allergies
  • Sinus infections
  • Excess mucus
  • Colds
  • Smoking
  • Changes in air pressure
  • Infected or swollen adenoids

Can I lose my hearing from an ear condition?

Hearing may be impaired as a result of an ear condition or infection, but hearing loss is unlikely. That said, to mitigate the risk of lasting ear damage, be sure to see a doctor immediately if:

  • Your symptoms last for longer than a day
  • Ear infection symptoms are present in children younger than 6 months of age
  • You are experiencing extreme ear pain
  • Fluid, pus or bloody fluid leaks from the ear

Who is at risk of developing ear problems?

Children aged between 6 months and 2 years are more susceptible to ear infections than adults, though adults are by no means immune. Further, children cared for in group settings, and babies drinking from the bottle and making regular use of a dummy – especially when lying down – tend to have more ear problems.

Ear problems are more common in Autumn and Winter, and people that suffer from seasonal allergies have a greater risk of ear problems when pollen counters are higher. Finally, people regularly exposed to tobacco smoke or higher-than-normal levels of air pollution are also at greater risk than most of developing ear problems.

What are the symptoms of ear problems?

The symptoms of ear problems in adults are, generally, as follows:

  • Ear pain
  • Trouble hearing
  • Fluid leaking from the ear

In children, however, the symptoms can be much broader:

  • Ear pain
  • Trouble hearing
  • Fluid leaking from the ear
  • Loss of balance
  • Fever of 38ºC or higher
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite

Can I avoid developing an ear condition?

The NHS suggest the following to avoid developing inner ear infections:

  • Making sure you, or your child, are fully up-to-date with vaccinations
  • Avoiding smoky environments wherever possible
  • Not using a dummy with babies over 6 months of age

And to avoid outer ear infections:

  • Not putting cotton wool buds or fingers in your ears
  • Using ear plugs, or covering your ears with a swimming hat when swimming
  • Not letting water or shampoo into your ears when showering or bathing

Your ear condition questions, answered

Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor

Ear problems are typically diagnosed with the use of an otoscope – an instrument combining a magnifying glass with a light to enable doctors to get a clear picture of the contents of your ears.

When fluid is present, doctors may take a sample and send it to a laboratory to determine which bacteria are present within it, and whether they are antibiotic-resistant or not.

When ear problems are particularly severe, hearing tests or even computed tomography (CT) scans may be used.

Your first port of call should be the following, which can relieve the pain and discomfort caused by ear problems:

  • Painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • Over-the-counter eardrops or decongestants
  • Placing a warm or cold flannel on, but not in, the ear
  • Removing ear discharge with damp cotton wool

If the above have no effect and your symptoms worsen, speak to a doctor. You may find that your doctor, if they are satisfied that your symptoms aren’t caused by antibiotic-resistant bacteria, prescribes a course of antibiotics or even surgery to tackle your ear problem.

Illustration of a consultation between patient and doctor