Earache is due usually not to neuralgia of the ear, but to a true inflammation of the middle ear, which either subsides or results in the accumulation of inflammatory products until the drum is ruptured and discharge occurs from the external canal. The trouble commonly originates from an extension of catarrhal disease of the nose or throat; the germs which are responsible for these disorders finding their way into the Eustachian tubes, and thus into the middle ear. Any source of chronic catarrh of the nose or throat, as enlarged and diseased tonsils, adenoids in children, or nasal obstruction, favor the growth of germs and the occurrence of frequent attacks of acute catarrh or “colds.” The grippe has been the most fruitful cause of middle ear inflammation and earache in recent years. Any act which forces up fluid or secretions from the back of the nose into the Eustachian tubes (see section on Deafness) and thus into the middle ear, is apt to set up inflammation there, either through the introduction of germs, or owing to the mechanical injury sustained. Thus the use of the nasal douche, the act of sniffing water into the nose, or blowing the nose violently when there is secretion or fluid in the back of the nose, or the employment of the post nasal syringe are one and all attended with this danger. Swimming on the back, diving, or surf bathing also endangers the ear, as cold water is forcibly driven not only into the external auditory canal, but, what is more frequently a source of damage, into the Eustachian tubes through the medium of the nose or throat. In this case the plugging of the nose with cotton would be of more value than the external canal, as is commonly practiced. If water has entered the Eustachian tube, blowing the nose and choking merely aggravate the trouble. The wiser plan is to do nothing but trust that the water will drain out, and if pain ensues treat it as recommended below for earache.
Water in the ears is sometimes removed by jumping about on one foot with the troublesome ear held downward, and if it is in the external canal it may be wiped out gently with cotton on the end of a match, as recommended in the article on treating wax in the ear (see p. 35). In the treatment of catarrh in the nose or throat only a spray from an atomizer should be used, as Dobell’s or Seiler’s solutions followed by menthol and camphor, twenty grains of each to the ounce of alboline or liquid vaseline.
Exposure to cold and the common eruptive diseases of children, as scarlet fever, measles, and also diphtheria, are common causes of middle ear inflammation. In the latter disorders the protection afforded by a nightcap which comes down over the ears, and worn constantly during the illness, is frequently sufficient to ward off ear complications.
Although earache or middle ear inflammation is common, its dangers are not fully appreciated, since the various complications are likely to arise, and the result is not rarely serious. Extension of the inflammation to the bone behind the ear may necessitate chiseling away a part of the skull to liberate pus or dead bone in this locality, and the occurrence of abscess of the brain will necessitate operation.
The use of leeches in the beginning of the attack is of great value, and though unpleasant are not difficult or painful in their application. One should be applied just in front of the opening into the ear (which should be previously closed with cotton to prevent the entrance of the leech), and the other behind the ear in the crease where it joins the side of the head and at a point a little below the level of the external opening into the ear. A drop of milk on these spots will often start the leeches immediately at work, or a drop of blood obtained with a pin prick. When the leeches are gorged with blood and cease to suck, they should be removed and bleeding encouraged for half an hour with applications of absorbent cotton dipped in hot water. Then clean, dry absorbent cotton is applied, and pressure made on the wounds if bleeding does not soon stop or is excessive.
The after treatment of the bites consists in cleanliness and the use of vaseline. The patient must stay in bed, and the hot water bag be constantly kept on the ear till all pain ceases. If the drum perforates, a discharge will usually appear from the external ear. Then the canal must be cleansed, once or more daily, by injecting very gently into the ear a solution of boric acid (as much of boric acid as the water will dissolve), following this by wiping the water out of the canal with sterilized cotton, as directed for the treatment of wax in the ear.
The syringing is permissible only once daily, unless the discharge is copious, but the canal may be wiped out in this manner several times a day with dry cotton. It is well to keep the opening into the ear greased with vaseline, and a plug of clean absorbent cotton loosely packed into the canal to keep out the cold. Excessive or too forcible syringing may bring about that complication most to be feared, although it may appear through no fault in care, i. e., an implication of the cavity in the bone back of the ear (mastoid disease). Germs find their way through the connecting passage by which this cavity is in touch with the middle ear, or may be forced in by violent syringing. When this happens, earache, or pain just back of the ear, commonly returns during the first or second week after the first attack, and tenderness may be observed on pressing on the bone just back of the ear close to the canal. Fever, and local redness and swelling of the parts over the bone in this region may also occur. Confinement to bed, and constant application of a rubber bag containing cracked ice, to the painful parts must be enforced. If the tenderness on pressure over the bone and pain do not subside within twenty four to forty eight hours, surgical assistance must be obtained at any cost, or a fatal result may ensue. The opening in the drum membrane, caused by escape of discharge in the course of middle ear inflammation, usually closes, but even if it does not deafness is not a necessary sequence.
The eardrum is not absolutely essential to hearing, but it is of great importance to exclude sources of irritation, dust, water, and germs which are likely to set up middle ear trouble. More ordinary after effects are chronic discharge from the ear following acute inflammation and perforation of the eardrum, which may mean at any time a sudden return of pain with the occurrence of the more dangerous conditions just recited, together with deafness. Bearing all this in mind it is advisable never to neglect a severe or persistent earache, but to call in expert attention. When this is not obtainable the treatment outlined below should be carefully followed.
Symptoms. Pain is severe and often excruciating in adults. It may be felt over the temple, side and back of the head and neck, and even in the lower teeth, as well as in the ear itself. The pain is increased by blowing the nose, sneezing, coughing, and stooping. There is considerable tenderness usually on pressing on the skin in front of the ear passage. In infants there may be little evidence of pain in the ear. They are apt to be very fretful, refuse food, cry out in sleep, often lie with the affected ear resting on the hand, and show tenderness on pressure immediately in front or behind the ear passage.
Dullness, fever, chills, and convulsions are not uncommon in children, but, on the other hand, after some slight illness it is not infrequent for discharge from the ear to be the first sign which calls the attention of parent or medical attendant to the source of the trouble. For this reason the careful physician always examines the ear in doubtful cases of children’s diseases. Unless the inflammation subsides with treatment, either a thin, watery fluid (serum) is formed in the middle ear, or pus, when we have an “abscess of the ear.” The drum if left to itself breaks down in three to five days, or much sooner in children who possess a thinner membrane. A discharge then appears in the canal of the external ear, and the pain is relieved. It may occasionally happen that the Eustachian tube drains away the discharge, or that the discharge from the drum is so slight that it is not perceived, and recovery ensues. Discharge from the ear continues for a few weeks, and then the hole in the drum closes and the trouble ceases. This is the history in favorable cases, but unfortunately, as we have indicated, the opposite state of affairs results not infrequently, especially in neglected patients.
Treatment. The patient with severe earache should go to bed and take a cathartic to move the bowels. He should lie all the time with the painful ear on a rubber bag containing water as hot as can be comfortably borne. Every two hours a jet of hot water, which has been boiled and cooled just sufficiently to permit of its use, is allowed to flow gently from a fountain syringe into the ear for ten minutes, and then the ear is dried with cotton, as described under the treatment of wax in the ear. No other “drops” of any kind are admissible for use in the ear, and even this treatment is of less importance than the dry heat from the hot water bag, and may be omitted altogether if the appliances and skill to dry the ear are lacking. Ten drops of laudanum for an adult, or a teaspoonful of paregoric for a child six years old, may be given by the mouth to relieve the pain. The temperature of the room should be even and the food soft.
If the pain continues it is wiser to have an aurist lance the drum, to avoid complications, than to wait for the drum membrane to break open spontaneously in his absence. Loss or damage of the eardrums may call for “artificial eardrums.” They do not act at all like the drumhead of the musical instrument by their vibrations, but only are of service in putting on the stretch the little bones in the middle ear which convey sound. Some of those advertised do harm by setting up a mechanical irritation in the ear after a time, and a better result is often obtained with a ball of cotton or a paper disc introduced into the ear by an aurist.