Avatar photo

By Dr Dulcy Rakumakoe

Chief Executive Officer

Here’s what you need to know about ear infections

Wondering if you have an ear infection? Here's what you should know: the types, causes, and symptoms of ear infections.

The ear consists of three main parts:

Outer ear: This includes the visible part of the ear, known as the pinna or auricle, and the ear canal. The ear canal is a tube that directs sound waves toward the eardrum. It is the part we can clean with cotton swabs, but excessive cleaning can push wax deeper and potentially lead to earwax buildup or infection.

Middle ear: Behind the eardrum lies the middle ear, which contains three small bones called the ossicles. These bones, the malleus (hammer), incus (anvil), and stapes (stirrup), transmit sound vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear. The middle ear is connected to the back of the throat by the Eustachian tube, which helps maintain equal air pressure on both sides of the eardrum.

Inner ear: The inner ear is a complex structure deep in the skull. It houses the cochlea, a spiral-shaped organ responsible for converting sound vibrations into electrical signals sent to the brain. The inner ear also contains the vestibular system, which helps control balance and spatial orientation.

A man suffering from ear infection touching his inflamed head. Picture: iStock
A man suffering from ear infection touching his inflamed head. Picture: iStock

Ear infections affect people of all ages in South Africa. While they are often perceived as minor ailments, ear infections can cause significant discomfort and, if left untreated, lead to severe complications.

In this comprehensive article, we will delve into the types of ear infections, their causes, symptoms, treatment options, and preventive measures, shedding light on the importance of raising awareness about this common health concern in South Africa.

ALSO READ: Breast reductions are increasingly in demand and on display on TikTok

Types of ear infections

There are three primary types of ear infections: otitis externa, otitis media, and otitis interna.

Otitis externa – Commonly known as swimmer’s ear, it affects the ear canal’s outer portion. It often occurs due to excessive moisture in the ear, which provides a breeding ground for bacteria. Symptoms include pain, itching, redness, and drainage from the ear.

Otitis media – It is an infection of the middle ear and is more common in children. It often follows an upper respiratory infection and can cause earache, fever, hearing difficulties, and fluid drainage.

Otitis interna – Also known as labyrinthitis, it affects the inner ear and can result from a viral or bacterial infection. Symptoms include severe vertigo, hearing loss, and ringing in the ear.

Young woman having aching ears. Picture: iStock
Young woman having aching ears. Picture: iStock

Causes and risk factors

Ear infections can be caused by various factors, including:

Bacterial or viral infections – The most common cause of ear infections is bacterial or viral infections that affect the respiratory system.

Allergies – These can lead to inflammation in the nasal passages and Eustachian tubes, increasing the risk of ear infections.

Smoking – Exposure to second-hand smoke can irritate the Eustachian tubes, making infections more likely.

Age – Children, especially those under the age of five, are more susceptible to ear infections due to their developing Eustachian tubes.

Little boy touching his painful ear. Picture: iStock
Little boy touching his painful ear. Picture: iStock

Symptoms and diagnosis

Common symptoms of ear infections include ear pain, fluid drainage, hearing difficulties, fever, and irritability in children.

Diagnosis typically involves a physical examination of the ear and may include a tympanometry or pneumatic otoscopy to assess the eardrum’s movement. In some cases, a culture of ear discharge may be needed to identify the specific infection-causing organism.

Treatment options

These depend on their type and severity:

Antibiotics – Bacterial ear infections are often treated with antibiotics, while viral infections may require antiviral medications.

Pain management – Over-the-counter pain relievers can help alleviate ear pain and discomfort.

Ear drops – These may be prescribed to address inflammation and discomfort associated with ear infections.

Surgical intervention – In severe cases or when infections are recurrent, surgical procedures like the insertion of ear tubes may be necessary.

Doctor examining ear of a child. Picture: iStock
Doctor examining ear of a child. Picture: iStock


This is possible through some simple steps:

Maintain good ear hygiene – Keep ears clean and dry, especially after swimming, to prevent moisture buildup.

Avoid smoking – Avoid exposing yourself and your children to second-hand smoke, as it can increase the risk of infections.

Vaccinations – Ensure that your child’s vaccinations, such as the pneumococcal vaccine, are up to date to reduce the risk of infections.

Prompt treatment – If you or your child develops cold or respiratory symptoms, seek prompt medical attention.

Some complications and long term effects

Ear infections, if left untreated, can lead to complications such as hearing loss, speech and language development delays in children, and the spread of infection to nearby structures like the mastoid bone. Long-term effects can include recurring ear infections, chronic fluid buildup in the middle ear, and even permanent hearing impairment.


Ear infections are a common health concern in South Africa. By understanding the types, causes, symptoms, treatment options, and preventive measures for ear infections, we can better protect our ear health.

Early diagnosis and treatment are crucial in preventing complications and ensuring recovery. Moreover, adopting preventive measures can significantly reduce the risk of developing ear infections, enhancing the overall well-being of the South African population.

It is imperative we continue to raise awareness about this prevalent issue and take proactive steps to mitigate its impact.

NOW READ: Sex education for adults: Why old dogs need new tricks

Read more on these topics

children Health smoking South Africa vaccine

Access premium news and stories

Access to the top content, vouchers and other member only benefits