Listening to music, going for a swim or relaxing in the bath can all be activities we all take for granted, until we get an ear infection. Although they're more common in children, grown-ups can still suffer from these kinds of health issues. However, there are lots of different ways you can ward off ear problems and keep doing your favourite activities.
The way your ears are structured can make them susceptible to different kinds of infections. Ears are divided into three different parts called the outer, middle and inner ear. The outer part includes everything up to the ear drum, with the middle and inner sections located behind it. Beyond the ear drum are tiny hairs that convey sound to small bones, as well as a tube running towards the throat, called the Eustachian tube.
All these different components strike a delicate balance so we can hear. Even though the middle ear isn't usually exposed to the outside world it can still get infected, which is called otitis media. This is different from otitis externa, as these infections are found on the outer ear.
Safe and Sound?
When it comes to ears, you might think hearing loss will be a sure sign something is up, but this isn't always true. When the outer ear becomes infected, such as by damage to the skin that's let bacteria in, you might just get minor swelling in the ear canal and some pain.
On the other hand, you might not feel any discomfort from middle ear infections but you could get muffled hearing. This can happen when bacteria and viruses spread from the throat and affect the hairs in the middle ear. It can also happen when the Eustachian tube gets blocked and swollen so trapped fluid builds up.
Both these kinds of infections can affect your daily life, as you may be advised not to go swimming, or do anything where water can enter the ear canal.
As infections in the middle ear can be the result of bacteria and viruses in the atmosphere, it's not always easy to prevent them. But sometimes, they can occur as a complication of otitis externa.
You might get problems with the outer ear if water enters them constantly, as this can wash away the protective layer of wax and lead to swimmers' ear. Damage to the surface lets in bacteria and fungus which can lead to swelling and abscesses that spread to your middle and inner ears.
Be gentle when washing ears and avoiding products that could inflame your skin, such as harsh chemicals as this can keep otitis externa at bay. Keeping the ear canal dry with the help of swimming plugs. You can get them from zenplugs.com/molded-earplugs and they can preserve the natural flora in your ear and is recommended by the NHS if you swim often.
This article isn't to be used as medical advice. Please check with your doctor if these problems might affect you.
Dr Toby Bateson