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What to Do About Ear Infections

This is part 2 of the series on the ear, covering the middle ear infections that cause young children and their parents so much pain.

By
Rob Lamberts, MD
September 16, 2009
Episode #014

Page 1 of 3

OK it’s time to cover the ears again. Uh, no…don’t cover your ears.  I strongly suggest that you leave your ears uncovered while I cover them…I mean talk about them. On a previous podcast I talked about swimmer’s ear, and today I’ll cover…uh…discuss the middle ear. You know, the part of the ear that gets infected a lot in little kids.

How many times do I have to tell you that this podcast is for informational purposes only? My goal is to add to your medical knowledge and translate some of the weird medical stuff you hear, so when you do go to your doctor, your visits will be more fruitful. I don’t intend to replace your doctor; he or she is the one you should always consult about your own medical condition.

Middle Ear Infections

Some of my astute listeners out there are probably thinking: "Hey, Dr. Rob, did you say middle ear infection? I thought the infection my kids got was an inner ear infection."

Well, I am not mistaken; I did mean to say middle ear infection. There are three sections of the ear: external, middle, and inner. The external ear is everything on the outside of the eardrum. Some people have generous servings of external ear. The middle ear is a space behind the eardrum that amplifies its vibrations and transmits them to the inner ear. The inner ear takes those vibrations and sends them to your brain so you can perceive sound.

The middle ear is actually a lot like Middle Earth, except it doesn’t have a “-th” at the end. It’s a magical place.

Why Do Your Ears Hurt When You Fly?

The condition of the middle ear is key to hearing well. To transmit sound to the inner ear, the eardrum must vibrate; and one of the keys to getting a normal vibration is for the pressure to be equal on both sides of the eardrum. To equalize pressure, the body uses a little tube called the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the nasal passages. Yawning or chewing makes the Eustachian tube open up, which is why you can make your ears “pop” when you do these things.

If you’ve been on an airplane, you’ve probably noticed your ears feel funny during take-off and landing. That is because the cabin pressure changes, which decreases the ability of your eardrum to vibrate. If you look around the cabin, you’ll notice everyone yawning or chewing gum. That is basically a Eustachian tube festival. Yippee.

Why Do Your Ears Get Plugged When You Are Sick?

Viruses and allergies can make your nose congested by causing the nasal walls to be swollen. The Eustachian tube connects directly to the back of the nasal passages, and so its walls also get swollen get plugged. That’s why a head cold can make everything sound muffled. That’s your Eustachian tube getting plugged, making it harder for your eardrum to vibrate. That also happens because mucous builds up in the middle ear since it can’t escape out the Eustachian tube.

Why Do Ear Infections Hurt?

Okay loyal listeners, let’s see if you paid attention to the antibiotic podcast. What happens when mucous is sitting around in a warm, dark place—like your middle ear? Very good! Bacteria grow, resulting in the dreaded middle ear infection. These bacteria multiply, causing inflammation and pressure inside the ear, with the end result: pain.

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