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How Do You Get an Ear Infection?


by Gayle, Woodson, M.D.

Q. How do you get an ear infection?

A. That depends on the meaning of the word “ear.” Seriously.

Your ear has three parts. The inner ear, a fluid-filled structure imbedded in the skull, does not often get infected. The outer and middle parts aren’t so fortunate.

Outer-Ear Infections
The outer ear is that bowl of cartilage attached to the outside of your ear, and the narrow channel that leads down to the eardrum. The entire outer ear is covered with skin, and like skin anywhere on the body, it can develop a rash and become infected.

The most common outer-ear infection is swimmer’s ear: When water is trapped in the outer ear canal, the skin gets macerated (soaked, softened and weakened), and germs take over.

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Middle-Ear Infections

The middle ear is the air-filled space just behind the eardrum. It’s connected to the back of your nose by the Eustachian tube. Normally, this tube opens every time you yawn or swallow, letting a little bit of air into the middle ear. (You've no doubt experienced the sensation of your ears popping when you go up or down in an airplane or a fast elevator. This is actually air moving in and out to equalize the pressure.)

The Eustachian tube may swell when you have a cold, causing your ears to become stopped-up or even filled with fluid. A fluid-filled middle ear is a perfect place for germs to grow, and the result is a middle-ear infection. In children, the Eustachian tube is narrow and floppy, so ear infections can be quite frequent.

Board-certified otolaryngologist
GAYLE WOODSON, M.D., is chair of otolaryngology at Southern Illinois University School of Medicine.

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Last updated and/or approved: July 2012.
Original article appeared in winter 2006 former print magazine. Bio current as of that issue. This general health-care information is not meant as individual advice. Please see our disclaimer.

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