Ear Abscess: Everything You Need to Know

Updated on April 25, 2016

Causes of an Ear Abscess

An ear abscess (medical name - mastoiditis) is a dangerous infection of the skull, provoked by bacteria in the ear. It primarily affects toddlers and infants, although in rare occasions older individuals may be

susceptible.

The cause is always the same… namely, bacteria. To be more specific, an ear abscess forms when bacteria builds up in the middle ear passage. This bacterial buildup infiltrates the porous, sponge-like section of the skull known as the mastoid process, leading to serious complications.

Various bacterial infections can lead to an ear abscess. Some of the most common culprits include:

- Common cold

- Sore/Strep throat

- Pneumonia

- Staph infection

- E. Coli

In some cases, a condition known as cholesteatoma can lead to an ear abscess. However, bacterial inflammation is a more likely cause.

Getting an ear abscess is no light matter. An untreated ear abscess will lead to excruciating pain (ruptured eardrums, etc.), serious disease (meningitis, etc.) and, ultimately, death.

The Warning Signs

Thankfully, mastoiditis isn't hard to predict or to prevent. By following common practice, you'll greatly reduce the chances of developing an ear abscess.

Once again, an untreated ear abscess will spread to the blood and/or brain, leading to death. It is extremely important to heed any warning signs and seek medical advice promptly.

First and most importantly, all ear abscesses come on the heels of an ear infection. For this reason, catching and curing infections early is the best preventative. Any clear sign of ear pain is a big red flag; go and see a physician immediately.

Of course, you may not know that your child has an earache, especially if your child can't communicate effectively. In instances like these, check for some of these secondary symptoms:

Fever

The normal body temperature ranges from 97.6 °F and 99.6 °F. If your child's temperature is 100 °F or higher, this means that a fever is present which may have been triggered by growing bacteria in the ear canals.

Ear Discharge

Ear discharge may be pus or it may be blood. Either is a strong indicator of a developing abscess. This discharge is triggered by bacterial buildup in the middle ear, inner ear, or behind the eardrum membrane and should be addressed immediately.

Redness/Swelling

Some children develop redness and/or swelling in and around the ear. Again, if this becomes apparent, see your doctor immediately.

Headache

Serious ear infection may provoke a throbbing pain behind the ear. This pain may also be displaced, leading to an intense headache.

Irritability

This is much easier to perceive in younger individuals. Toddlers and infants that are irritable and crying haphazardly may be developing an ear infection.

Hearing Loss

This is a big red flag that should be heeded immediately. Look for lower responsiveness if the child is unable to verbally express a loss of hearing.

Diarrhea

Loose bowel movement is another common symptom, but is also symptomatic of many other illnesses. For this reason, it's best to look for diarrhea in addition to some of the other symptoms mentioned above.

Prevention

There are a few ways to prevent an ear abscess. You should avoid every cold and infection possible, and take care of your health. Remove the diseased tonsils if your physician recommends it. A great deal of ear trouble will then be prevented.

Symptoms

One may suffer from earache without having an ear abscess, but earache should always be considered a danger signal. Infants and children often cry out with pain, toss about, and pick at the ears. One should always suspect an ear abscess in an infant when it develops an unexplained fever, especially when it writhes and cries out in pain. The fever ranges from 100 degree F to 104 degree F. Symptoms may also include diarrhea, discharge, swelling and redness around the ear.

Drainage of the Ear

In a few days the eardrum ruptures and pus is discharged, the drainage continuing in most cases from a few days to two weeks, when it should gradually cease. If it continues longer or if the pus is free in amount or if the pain continues after the eardrum ruptures or is lanced, then be certain to tell your physician.

Treatment

It is best to call a physician, because in every case special care is needed and there is always some danger of serious complications from ear trouble. Your physician will want to run tests to determine the exact bacteria causing the problem. Hospitalization may be required at times, and strong antibiotics given intravenously. After an ear abscess has started it is almost impossible to prevent its formation. The treatment thereafter is relief from pain and freeing the pus so the ear can drain. After drainage has been effected, swab the ear canal twice daily with hydrogen peroxide.

Relief of Pain in the Ear

Pain may be controlled by continuous hot compresses over the ear, along with aspirin, or if necessary, a different type of painkiller. Use strong pain-relieving drugs only by advice of the physician, because the relief of the pain may disguise the seriousness of the condition and allow complications to develop which only a physician would recognise.

Lancing the Eardrum

The pressure of the pus in the middle ear on the inflamed delicate lining not only causes severe pain but is likely to force pus upward into the mastoid cells. It is therefore very important that the eardrum be lanced and drained as early as possible. Thus a great deal of pain is prevented and the danger of spreading the infection lessened.

Lancing the Eardrum Not Dangerous

One need have no fear that lancing the eardrum will result in deafness, though this is a popular belief. In fact quite the opposite is true, for if the pus is removed early by adequate drainage the delicate middle ear is saved injury, the severity of the infection is lessened and the eardrum heals rapidly back to its normal state without affecting the hearing. There is infinitely more danger of chronic deafness in children resulting from an undrained ear infection than from one properly treated.

Danger of Letting the Eardrum Go Unlanced

If the eardrum is permitted to rupture of its own accord from an ear abscess, a jagged hole is formed instead of the smooth narrow slit made by lancing; drainage is often poor because of the smallness of the opening; the eardrum usually bursts at a disadvantageous place; pain is unnecessarily prolonged by the slowness of the membrane breaking; permanent injury to the middle ear is possible; and the infection is much more likely to penetrate the rnastoid cells. So it is best to have the eardrum, lanced rather than to let it burst of its own accord.

Chronic Discharging Ears

A chronic discharge from the ear frequently necessitates an operation to effect a cure. Sometimes however, it is due to infected tonsils, and in such case removal of these diseased structures will prevent recurrence of the ear abscess. Many home remedies for this condition are a waste of time.

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    • profile image

      Kay Fritsch 

      13 months ago

      I had my left ear lanced at Cincinnati Childrens Hospital back in 1944 when I was 6 years old. I was kept in the hospital for 4 or 5 days. I can still remember the nurse in the operating room asking me if I could count backwards from 100. I think I got to 98.

    • profile image

      13 months ago

      Hi. I just removed my ear abscess today. One word for the doctor that treated me. Crazy. He was merciless during the removal of the abscess. Hahaha. Nevertheless, I am currently on healing process now.

    • profile image

      Cal 

      19 months ago

      This is the 4th abscess I've had on the outer skin of my ear. The first time it went away on its own, the second time I was prescribed antibiotics & didn't finish them, the third time I was prescribed doxycycline & didn't finish 3 days worth now I have another abscess. I was told that it could be from staph but it was never confirmed by the ER doctor. Could the infection be resistant to antibiotics and could this be an ongoing thing for the rest of my life? Please respond.

    • profile image

      Jane Dunn 

      2 years ago

      I had numerous abscesses in my ear as a baby .. And later had a perforated eardrum. Recently l had severe ear pain and new it must be an abcess the pain came to a peak in the middle of the night I felt it pop and blood etc leaked out this is months ago and lmstill getting leakage from the ear and hearing loss Your diagnosis seems urgent wjy does my G.P not think so

    • profile image

      tango44 

      4 years ago

      I was diagnosed with swimmers ear over ten days ago. Seen three times, including ER and same diagnosis. I've had a wick put in too. Finally my primary doc referred me to an ENT who probably saved my life today! Abscess in my ear! It has been a painful experience, but one I will never forget! This is serious! Share this information please.

    • profile image

      carroll-straus 

      5 years ago

      I had this done to me in the 50s. I was just a kid and it was barbaric. I am amazed that it is still being done. At least now I feel fairly sure they are better at the anesthesia! The trauma of that event has colored my frickin life.

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