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FLYING WON'T AGGRAVATE INNER EAR PROBLEMS

Q: I am just now recovering from an inner ear infection. About two years ago, I also had one that lasted over a month. This one lasted about 10 days. I was prescribed meds for nausea and meclizine for dizziness, and also antibiotics. We are going on a cruise soon. Will the boat trip or the flight make this flare up again? Is it common to have two such infections so close together? Should I ask my doctor to recommend a specialist?

-- B.D.

A: The human ear is in three sections. The first section is the outer ear, which consists of the cartilage covered with skin that we all see as the ear, plus the attached ear canal that acts as a funnel to send sound vibrations from the outside to the eardrum.

The second section, the middle ear, includes the eardrum and the three tiny bones called ossicles that amplify the vibrations received from the eardrum and send them to the inner ear.

The third section, the inner ear (also called the labyrinth), contains the vestibule and cochlea. They change the amplified sound vibrations to electrical impulses that are transmitted to the brain.

The semicircular canals are also located in the inner ear. These fluid-filled tubes, working with a part of the brain called the cerebellum, control balance.

Common causes of ear disorders include infection, trauma and tumors, and any or all of the three sections of the ear can be affected. Infections of the ear are called otitis externa, otitis media and otitis interna, designating each of the three sections.

Otitis interna -- disorders of the inner ear associated with infection, such as what you describe -- are not common and are often seen with infections elsewhere in the body. For example, labyrinthitis, inflammation of the inner ear, is thought to be preceded by an upper respiratory infection.

Because it is very difficult to determine the cause of infection (bacterial, fungal, viral, etc.), it's often recommended that you take an antibiotic that kills bacteria just in case. In addition, of course, symptoms of the disorder can be treated directly, such as your vertigo's being treated with meclizine.

Bacterial infection of the inner ear is a cause of vertigo, as is motion sickness. A sudden drop in air pressure caused by rapid descent in an aircraft can affect pressure on the eardrum in the middle ear. However, if your inner ear infection has been successfully treated, you should have no more problems traveling by air or sea than usual.

If you get an inner ear infection again in the next few months, you should definitely see a specialist. Because such infections may be associated with colds or flu, which are viral infections, you may want to watch out for them.

Catching your inner ear infection before it goes too far may reduce the time for treatment.

Dr. Allen Douma welcomes questions from readers. Although he cannot respond to each one individually, he will answer those of general interest in his column. Write to Douma in care of Tribune Media Services, 435 N. Michigan Ave., Suite 1400, Chicago, Ill. 60611. His e-mail address is DRFamily@aol.com.

This column is for informational and educational purposes only.

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