What a chronic ear infection looks like

These are images from the inside of two human ears. The ear on the top doesn't get chronic infections. The ear on the bottom does. The difference seems to be the presence of a biofilm—a little colony of bacteria or other microorganisms that build up in a thin layer.

Biofilms happen all over the place in nature. That slime that covers the surface of rocks at the bottom of a river or lake? That's a biofilm. The slick, green coating on the underside of a boat when you pull it out of the water? That's a biofilm, too. And so is the plaque that builds up on your teeth.

In the case of ears, though, biofilms might explain why it's so difficult to treat chronic ear infections—biofilms are not easily killed off by antibiotics. The image above, showing a biofilm-coated ear drum, was captured using a new imaging device that produces pictures from reflected light, the same way ultrasound makes images from reflected sound waves. It's part of a research paper that presents evidence about the role of biofilms in ear infection and long-term hearing loss.

Check out Scientific American for more information

Via Bora Zivkovic


  1. Seems like some kind of symbiotic nematode with sharp, pincery mouth parts and a hankering for biofilm is the answer here.


  2. “… a new imaging device that produces pictures from reflected light.”

    Isn’t that a good description of a conventional camera?

    1. You beat me to this comment. Even the additional info of  “…the same way ultrasound makes images from reflected sound waves.” doesn’t help me understand this.

    2. I’m guessing it has to do with a non-visible band of light, which a conventional camera wouldn’t capture.

      1. The images you see are actually cross-sections through the eardrum, revealing the thickening due to the biofilm.  A conventional camera can only see the outer eardrum surface.  Just like Ultrasound can see an unborn baby inside the body, Optical Coherence Tomography can see inside things at a much higher resolution, using a scanning laser and “tricks” with interferometry.  

    1. 3 drops of vinegar in each ear after any immersion will prevent ear infections in children.   Drip it in after each bath, pull gently on the earlobe and rub the skin just below the ear until the vinegar fully penetrates, then roll the child over in your lap so the vinegar drains back out.  In my family it’s then traditional to say “now you smell like a salad!” and everyone laughs.

      If the child already has an ear infection the vinegar will sting!  S/he may cry, and should be held and comforted so that there’s no lasting aversion to eardrops in the future.  If there is no existing problem, regular cooking vinegar does not sting in your ears.  It will not harm your child’s health or hearing in any case.

      The infection develops because water is held in the ear by surface tension.  That’s how biofilms typically grow, in unmoving water.  You have them in your PVC plumbing (mine’s copper, so I don’t).  The vinegar releases the water so it all drains out, leaving a thin coat of vinegar.  The infection, which is bacterial or fungal, cannot survive the PH of the vinegar.

  3. My full-body biofilm functions as a rebreather underwater and as an environment suit for extra-atmospheric excursions. I call it Aldus.

  4. I often surf with images turned off, and the days I am thankful for that are the days that BoingBoing has headlines akin to “here’s what an infection looks like”.

  5. “a new imaging device that produces pictures from reflected light”

    You mean like cameras?

  6. Aaaah..biofilms.   They’re why I do a quick brush of the teeth and gums, sans toothpate, before my first meal of the day.

  7. I say use a Q-tip once a week and let the natural human ear waxes and bacteria do their job.  Did cavemen have chronic ear infections?  For the longest I used a Q-tip daily. And then I got an ear infection. And it was a nasty bugger as my ear was visibly sticking out further than my other side.

    Anyhow I’ve cut back Q-tip usage and so far so good. 

    1. Did cavemen have chronic ear infections?

      I’m not quite sure why you’re asking this as though the answer would be, “No.” 

      There’s absolutely no reason to think that cavemen didn’t get (and die from) infections of all kinds, including those of the ear. 

    2.  My mother, who worked for decades as a nurse, told me that when she was trained, the rule was “the smallest thing you put in your ear is your own elbow and then only after you had wrapped your winter jacket around it.”

      No, I don’t even use the Q-tips. 

      1.  I had about 6 ear infections as a child/teenager. I have distinct memories of two being beyond terrible. (One was while on vacation at Disney World)

        I am now a Q-Tip addict. My ears always feel waxy to me. I can’t say I attribute it to my infection past. And, I know as we age, our ear canals flatten out and the water/gunk isn’t as likely to get caught. But I have not had an ear issue in a long time. I also don’t poke my ear drums out. Take it for what it’s worth.

  8. Ah, that explains one of the custom mixtures the ENT docs order from my pharmacy…a mixture of antibiotic and antifungal powders (chloramphenicol, sulfanilamide, and amphoteracin, usually) that are puffed into the ear, more concentrated than ear drops or systemic antibiotics. Must be trying to clobber a biofilm!

  9.  One of my ears, which has had half a dozen different operations, gets an ear infection every time I get water in it (which means I always shower looking at the floor).  Maybe I’ll try Ito Kagehisa’s vinegar treatment.Q-tips (which aren’t Q shaped in the UK), do clean my ear, but seem to just push crap down into the deep recesses of my ear, rather than cleaning it out.

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