Ear Infections: When to See a Specialist

April 5th, 2016

By Elaina George, MD

Ear infections are one of the most common problems for which people seek medical attention. The best treatments for the various types of ear infections depend on the underlying cause.

The first type is an outer ear infection also known as "swimmers ear", which involves the skin lining the ear canal. These type of infections are generally caused by water exposure and the use of cotton swabs. They can be quite painful, causing hearing loss and, in severe cases, swelling of the external ear itself. One of the easiest ways to avoid getting swimmer’s ear is to use earplugs when swimming, avoid using cotton swabs especially after getting water in the ear, and avoid getting water in the ear when showering or washing your hair. If water gets in the ear, putting rubbing alcohol drops in the ear and letting them drain out will drive the excess water out of the ear without the need for cotton swabs. If the pain persists, there is swelling of the ear, and/or fever is present, a visit to an ear, nose, and throat specialist is recommended.

The second type of infection is a middle ear infection, also known as otitis media. Middle ear infections generally occur with upper respiratory infections, acute sinus infections, and, in some cases, can occur when people fly with a congested nose. Symptoms include feeling like there is water in the ear, dizziness, ear pressure, ringing in the ear, and hearing loss. If the fluid sensation is not accompanied by fever or other signs of an upper respiratory infection, over-the-counter remedies such as nasal saline, mucus thinners such as Mucinex, or antihistamines may relieve the symptoms. However, if symptoms persist or if there are signs of an acute infection or dizziness, a visit to an ear, nose and throat specialist is recommended.

The third type of infection is known as an inner ear infection. This type of infection can present with dizziness (vertigo), sudden hearing loss, and ringing in the ear (tinnitus). There can be many causes for an inner ear infection including a viral or bacterial infection, and treatments vary depending on the cause. Therefore, a patient should seek an appointment with an ear, nose and throat specialist as soon as possible.

Dr. Elaina George is Chairman of the Liberty HealthShare Physician Advisory Board. She is an Otolaryngologist in private practice in Atlanta, GA.