The inner ear and the middle ear can both become infected. The inner ear is where the nerves go to the brain and regulate balance. The middle ear is the section of the ear directly behind the eardrum where the Eustachian tube goes from the middle ear to the throat.
Inner Ear Infection
In an inner ear infection, the nerve is generally affected and becomes inflamed. The nerve, the vestibulocochlear nerve, leads from the inner ear into the brain. Infection is usually caused by a virus that has invaded the body and when the nerve is inflamed, it causes dizziness or vertigo and sometimes hearing problems.
Middle Ear Infection
The Eustachian tube is the actual part that is infected. Bacteria and mucous from the nose, whether through a cold or postnasal drip, can build up and settle in the Eustachian tube. It's a perfect environment for the bacteria to thrive and multiply. Middle ear infections occur frequently in children because the Eustachian tubes are smaller.
There can be some mild or even serious complications that occur with ear infections. With an inner ear infection, there can be permanent damage, causing hearing loss or nerve damage that causes some degree of loss of balance. In a middle ear infection, complications due to recurrent infections include hearing loss that can affect a child's learning. In extreme cases, a chronic infection could cause a ruptured ear drum or, in the worst case, a brain abscess.
Symptoms of middle ear infections are pain or earache, fever and sometimes a yellow pus discharge if the eardrum has burst. A doctor will use an otoscope to check for a reddened eardrum and fluid. Symptoms of an inner ear infection are mild to extreme dizziness.
Most middle ear infections will heal on their own without treatment, but in chronic cases, antibiotics will be prescribed. In the worst cases, a tube can be inserted into the eardrum to allow fluid to drain and to alleviate pressure and pain. For inner ear infections, antibiotics can be used if bacteria is involved. However, if a virus has caused the infection, it is more difficult to treat. In viral cases, physicians will generally prescribe medication to ease nausea and to help alleviate dizziness. Occasionally, steroids or anti-viral medications can be used.