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Acute and Chronic Ear Infections

Ear infections, also known as otitis media, are one of the most common childhood medical problems. Ear infections are the most frequent cause of doctor visits for children. In fact, three out of four children in the United States will have at least one ear infection by the time they reach the age of three.

Causes of Ear Infections

While ear infections can occur in any of the three parts of the ear, they most commonly develop in the middle ear. Ear infections are caused when fluid builds up behind the eardrum in the Eustachian tubes, the tubes that connect the ears to the nose. This moist environment is conducive to the rapid growth of bacteria which result in the infection. Occasionally, although ear infections are usually caused by bacteria, viruses or allergies may be the underlying factor.

Since children's Eustachian tubes are narrower and shorter than those of adults, children are more likely to develop ear infections. In fact, ear infections are relatively rare in adults.

Risk Factors for Ear Infections

Certain individuals are predisposed to ear infections by heredity or anatomy. Feeding position can also be a risk factor as babies who are bottle-fed tend to develop more ear infections than breastfed babies. Children in group child care may be more likely to develop ear infections simply because they are exposed to more children who may be sick. Children exposed to secondhand smoke are also more likely to develop ear infections, as are children with weakened immune systems or allergies or those who use a pacifier.

Allergy Management

Ear, nose and throat (ENT) allergies, like other types of allergies, are extremely common. Allergic reactions of all kinds are triggered by an abnormal response of the immune system when it mistakes an innocuous substance for a serious threat. While most allergic symptoms of this type are relatively mild, untreated ear, nose and throat allergies should not be ignored because they may lead to more significant medical problems.

Causes of ENT Allergies

ENT-allergy sufferers, although seemingly reacting to allergens, are actually being attacked by their own immune systems. When an allergic individual is exposed to an allergen, her or his body produces antibodies and releases a variety of chemicals, including histamine. Histamine is the chief precipitating cause of allergic response. In many cases, an allergic response to the allergen will not occur immediately upon exposure, but only after a certain threshold of exposure is reached. While the underlying causes of allergies are unknown, they are known to be hereditary.

Common allergens responsible for ENT allergies are present in the air, and may include dust, mold, animal dander and pollen. Allergies to plant pollens and mold can be seasonal, occurring only when certain plants or trees are in bloom, or when mold is produced by rotting leaves. Such allergies are also affected by weather conditions, particularly humidity and wind, and are commonly referred to as hay fever.

Symptoms of ENT Allergies

Most allergies of the ear, nose and throat result in mild symptoms, which may, nonetheless, interfere with normal activities. Nasal rhinitis may result in sneezing, nasal congestion or a runny nose. Individuals with ear, nose and throat allergies may also suffer from headaches, and itching and soreness in the throat and ears. More severe reactions to ear, nose and throat allergies, including anaphylaxis, are far less common but may be life-threatening.

Balance Disorders

A balance disorder is a complex condition that causes unsteadiness and dizziness, and sensations of spinning, moving or floating. Part of the inner ear known as the labyrinth interacts with other body systems, including those of the eyes, bones and joints, to maintain balance. The part of the inner ear that is involved with balance is called the vestibular system, and balance disorders associated with the ear are referred to as vestibular disorders. Problems within the ear, brain or nervous system cause balance problems that affect more than two million people each year.

Symptoms of Balance Disorders

Symptoms of a balance disorders may come and go, or be constant. They may cause anxiety or panic when they occur, and may include:

  • Dizziness
  • Vertigo
  • Lightheadedness
  • Motion sickness
  • Blurry vision
  • Disorientation
  • Nausea

Vomiting, diarrhea, and increased heart rate or blood pressure may also accompany the symptoms listed above.

Types of Balance Disorders

Identifying the underlying cause and the type of balance disorder are both important for successful treatment. When a cause for the balance disorder is determined, a specific treatment plan can be created. Balance disorders are commonly characterized by their symptoms or causes. There are several types of common balance disorders.

Benign Paroxysmal Positional Vertigo
Also known as BPPV, benign paroxysmal positional vertigo is a condition that causes feelings of vertigo after specific position changes of the head. BPPV may be caused by an infection or inflammation of the ear that causes the calcium particles to shift, resulting in balance problems and vertigo. Patients who suffer from BPPV may have brief periods of vertigo that come and go.

Labyrinthitis results in dizziness and a loss of balance. It is usually caused by an infection or inflammation of the inner ear that is the result of an upper-respiratory infection. Labyrinthitis is frequently a result of chronic, untreated middle-ear infections. Symptoms of labyrinthitis usually subside when the infection clears up.

Meniere's Disease
Meniere's disease symptoms, which are caused by an imbalance of fluid in the inner ear, include vertigo, hearing loss and ringing in the ears. Symptoms of Meniere's disease may vary in both frequency and intensity. Some patients experience many symptoms within a short period of time, followed by months or years without them.

Vestibular Neuronitis
Also known as vestibular neuritis, vestibular neuronitis is the swelling of the vestibular nerve, which is responsible for sending balance signals from the inner ear to the brain. This condition usually causes vertigo. Vestibular neuronitis often follows a cold or other viral infection, although by the time symptoms arise, the viral infection is usually long gone.

Perilymph Fistula
Perilymph fistula is the leakage, caused by a physical injury or exertion, of inner-ear fluid. The symptoms of perilymph fistula may include dizziness, vertigo, nausea and vomiting. Some patients experience ringing or fullness in the ears, and many notice hearing loss. Symptoms may get worse when there is a change in altitude or air pressure.