What Causes Ear, Nose and Throat Infections?

Ear, nose and throat infections are very common. The symptoms are usually relatively mild, but infections can sometimes cause problems that need to be treated by an ENT specialist. What can cause an infection in your ears, nose or throat, and when should you visit an ENT clinic for advice?

Common Ear, Nose and Throat Infections

When we talk about ear, nose and throat infections, we often do it in terms of the location of the problem rather than the specific viral or bacterial infection that is causing the problem. This is because infections in different areas tend to produce different symptoms. We can tell where the infection is based on these symptoms.

  • Ear infections can be outer, middle or inner ear infections. Inner ear infections are less common as it is harder for viruses and bacteria to reach this part of the ear.
  • Nasal infections often affect the nasal passages (rhinitis), but they can also affect connected areas like the sinuses (sinusitis).
  • Throat infections can be named according to their location, for example tonsillitis in the tonsils or laryngitis in the larynx (voice box).

Sometimes the location of the infection is all we need to know in order to manage the symptoms. However, in some cases it may be possible to identify the specific infection that is responsible. It’s particularly important to do this when the symptoms are severe, there’s a chance that the infection could be bacterial, or other parts of your body are affected too.

Lots of different infections can affect your ears, nose, or throat:

  • The common cold and flu viruses can affect all three of these areas, although they most often affect your nose or throat
  • Infections in other parts of your body (such as the chest or airways) can sometimes spread to your ears, including serious infections such as measles
  • Mononucleosis and mumps can both affect the throat and may spread to the ears in some cases
  • Strep throat is an infection caused by a specific type of bacteria known as Streptococcus

Any part of the ears, nose and throat can be affected by many of the same viruses and bacteria. However, certain types of infection are more likely to happen in different areas and the symptoms can also be a little bit different, depending on exactly where the infection is located.

Viral vs. Bacterial Infections

The germs that can cause ENT infections can be viruses or bacteria. It can be important to know whether your infection is viral or bacterial because it can affect the symptoms and the treatment options:

  • Viral infections are more common as they include colds and the flu, both of which can cause infections in the ears, nose and throat.
  • Bacterial infections don’t happen as often, but they can be more serious. However, if an ear, nose or throat infection is caused by bacteria then it may be possible to treat it with antibiotics. Antibiotics only work against bacteria, so they can’t help with viral infections.

You probably won’t be able to tell which kind of infection you have as the symptoms can be very similar, but if you visit an ENT specialist they may be able to diagnose a specific infection. It can be useful to find out if the infection is bacterial, because this means it may be possible to treat it with antibiotics.

Symptoms of Ear, Nose and Throat Infections

Ear, nose and throat infections are often caused by the same kinds of bacteria and viruses. However, the symptoms can be different depending on where the infection is located:

  • Ear infections can cause earache, wax or discharge, hearing loss and balance problems.
  • Nose infections are likely to cause a runny or blocked nose and sneezing. Infections that reach areas such as the sinuses can also cause other symptoms such as headaches.
  • Throat infections can cause a sore or scratchy throat and pain or difficulty swallowing. You may also be able to feel swollen glands in your neck.

All three types of infections can also cause more general symptoms of infection, such as a fever, and it is common for infections to spread between these areas. For example, an infection that starts with a sore throat might start to cause other symptoms such as earache when it spreads from your throat to your ear.

Managing Your Symptoms

The symptoms of ear, nose and throat infections are usually mild and they should start to improve within just a few days. It can take a couple of weeks for the infection to clear up completely, but you should gradually start feeling better.

You should usually be able to manage the symptoms at home. Taking an over the counter painkiller like paracetamol or ibuprofen can help to relieve any pain. It can also reduce the inflammation that is causing many of your symptoms and may help to bring down your fever, if you have one. There are some other simple remedies that you can try to cope with the symptoms of ear, nose and throat infections too:

  • Holding a warm compress against your ear can help to relieve ear ache
  • Nasal sprays and decongestants may help with a blocked or runny nose
  • A warm drink with honey in it should soothe a sore throat
  • Wearing a hat and scarf can also help if you need to go out in cold weather when you have an infection- cover your ears or nose if they’re affected, or wrap up your throat to keep it warm.

When to See a Doctor?

Although ear, nose and throat infections aren’t usually anything to worry about, you should consult a doctor if your symptoms are severe, they last longer than expected, or if you keep getting the same kind of infection. An ENT specialist can find out what’s causing the infection and look for any underlying problems. You might be prescribed a treatment like antibiotics to clear up a bacterial infection or advised on how to prevent the symptoms from returning.

Do you have any other tips for people with ear, nose or throat infections?

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The Harley Street ENT clinic in London can provide all of the care that you need when you have an ear, nose, throat or balance problem. We ensure that you can get all of the right tests, treatments and advice in one convenient place.