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Ear infections are infections of the middle, or outer ear caused by bacteria. Middle ear infections are usually caused by bacteria that can also cause upper respiratory tract and throat infections.

What are ear infections, and what are their symptoms?

While most common colds and other upper respiratory infections are caused by viruses, the mucus membranes that are damaged by the virus infection build an ideal breeding ground for bacteria like Streptococcus species that can cause strep throat and other similar bacteria.

Through the connection between the airway and the inner ear that allow pressure equilibration between the middle ear and the outside that is called the Eustachian tube, these bacteria can enter the middle ear and cause a middle ear infection. This infection can cause severe pain, puss and blood discharges from the ear, fever, and even damage to the middle ear and ear drum. Ears can also become infected with bacteria directly from the outer part of the ear, as bacteria can enter the outer ear and make a home in the moist and warm environment they find there. This can happen e.g. through water entering from swimming in a dirty lake.

What are the causes of ear infections?

Ear infections are usually caused by the same kind of bacteria that can cause upper respiratory and throat infections like e.g. Streptococcus pneumoniae, Hemophilus influenzae, and Staphylococcus aureus. Staphylococcus aureus can be of the variety that is resistant to the antibiotic methicillin. This variety is better known as MRSA (methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus) and can cause a particularly stubborn and nasty infection. Ear infections often develop as a consequence of an upper respiratory tract infection that involves bacteria, or can also be due to contamination of the outer ear with bacteria containing fluid (e.g. dirty water).

What home remedies are there to treat ear infections?

There are many home remedies to treat and prevent ear infections. Some of these remedies are aimed directly at the causative agent, the bacteria that have infected the ear, while others bring relief of the symptoms to give the body time to fend off the bacteria using its natural defenses.

A good way to avoid infections of the outer ear is to avoid swimming in dirty water. Since it is not always easy to know whether the water you are about to swim in, is contaminated with bacteria that can cause ear infections, it might be best to wear wax ear plugs in the ears when swimming.

Putting a few drops of mineral oil or olive oil into the ears before swimming can also help to keep water out of the ear. Middle ear infections are harder to prevent, as they usually develop from a throat infection with bacteria entering the ear through the Eustachian tubes.

Therefore the best way to prevent these types of ear infection is to try to prevent upper respiratory infections by eating healthy, sleeping enough, exercising regularly, washing your hands often with soap and water, and avoiding crowds whenever possible. If you become sick, your body can heal better, if you rest. This way you might be able to curb the upper respiratory infection, before in can spread to your ears.

If you have an ear infection, you are probably in a lot of pain, so your number one goal would be to be more comfortable.

Moist heat can do that. Heat a damp cloth in the microwave, so it is warm (not hot!) and put it on the aching ear. Holding the ear over a cup with hot water can also do wonders for the relief of the pain.

Adding certain herbs in to the hot water in the cup can add additional benefits: chamomile and peppermint are anti-inflammatory, anti-bacterial and soothing and act as mild local anesthetics. Moistening a cloth with a tea of these herbs and putting the warm, damp cloth on the ear might work better than using hot water alone.

Mixing a drop of peppermint oil with 5 drops of olive oil and putting this into the ear with an ear syringe or an eye dropper can help soothing the pain, and it can also combat bacteria that are on this side of the ear drum. Peppermint oil, however can sting insensitive people, or at the active infection site. A more dilute version (e.g. 1 drop in 20 drops of olive oil) might help with these symptoms.

Inhaling hot vapor containing essential oils from sage, thyme, peppermint, or chamomile can help easing a bacterial throat infection and thus help the body combating a middle ear infection. It will also help decongesting the Eustachian tubes which can bring a significant relief for an ear ache due to an ear infection.

Putting the ear on a warm hot water bottle or a warm gel pack as a pillow can also be very soothing. Bacteria in the outer ear can be fought by mixing a teaspoon of saline with a teaspoon of hydrogen peroxide and putting this solution into the ear with an ear syringe or an eyedropper. It would be best if this solution is warm, as cold can make ear aches worse. After a few minutes, let it drain out of the ear by tilting the head to the side and gently pulling on the ear lobe a few times.

Rubbing alcohol can also be useful, but will sting a lot in the active infection site. Using a scarf or putting cotton into aching infected ear can help easing the pain that is induced by cold or wind. 

What can I do if home remedies for ear infections don’t work?

Most of the listed home remedies are meant to ease symptoms, and only a few can actually combat the causative agents of the ear infection, the bacteria. Additionally, the middle ear is not easily accessible from the outside. While some home remedies like pepper mint oil in olive oil might be able to cross the ear drum and fight bacteria in the middle ear, some infections are very stubborn. Since prolonged and severe middle ear infections can cause permanent damaged to the hearing, an ear specialist should be consulted, if the home remedies don’t bring the expected results, and if the ear ache is very painful, or comes with a high fever.