Many parents know how concerning it is when their child starts to complain about an earache. Ear infections are one of the most common reasons for a children’s doctors visit. An ear infection is medically known as Otitis Media (OM), which is inflammation of the middle ear and can occur as a result of a cold, sore throat, or other upper respiratory infection. Typically caused by bacteria, this condition affects 80% of children, who have at least one episode by age 3.
Causes of Ear Infections:
The high prevalence of ear infections among children is due to several reasons. Eustachian tubes in children are smaller than adults, which can make it difficult to drain fluid out of the ear. Additionally, children’s immune systems are weaker making it harder to fight infection.
Factors associated with a higher risk of childhood ear infections:
Factors that may increase your child’s risk of developing ear infections include second-hand smoke exposure, family history of ear infections, sub-optimal immune system, daycare attendance, absence of breastfeeding, frequent colds, bottle feeding at night or while the child is on his or her back.
Signs and Symptoms:
Signs to look for in your child if you suspect they have an ear infection include fever, ear pain, tugging at the ear, hearing loss, or balance problems. He or she may also be fussy, irritable or sleep poorly. For infants, a common indicator for parents is ear-tugging, excessive crying, or fever.
A doctor diagnoses an ear infection by using a pneumatic otoscope, which blows air into the ear canal, to check for fluid behind the eardrum. Middle ear infections are usually the result of dysfunction of the Eustachian tube that links the middle ear with the throat area. When the tube is not functioning correctly negative pressure develops in the middle ear space which can lead to a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum. When the fluid is unable to drain, it may become infected with viruses or bacteria leading to an ear infection.
Treatment for an ear infection is usually an antibiotic by mouth and medication for pain. For children who have recurrent ear infections that are refractory to medical therapy, persistent fluid behind the eardrum for more than three months, or hearing loss/speech delay, an alternative option may be to place small tubes (tympanostomy tubes) in the ear. This is a surgical procedure offered by most otolaryngologists (Ear, Nose and Throat or ENT doctors) with a high success rate in dealing with this sometimes difficult problem.
Prevention by reducing the number of associated risk factors certainly holds true for ear infections, but they aren’t always avoidable. If you suspect your child has reoccurring ear infections, make an appointment with an Ear, Nose and Throat (ENT) specialist to discuss treatment options.
About Dr. Eric Simko
Eric J. Simko, MD, FACS, FAAOA is a board certified otolaryngologist (ENT) practicing Head and Neck Surgery, ENT, and Allergy in Newport News, VA. His areas of special interest include pediatric ear, nose, and throat disorders such as recurrent ear infections , sleep-disordered breathing, thyroid/parathyroid surgery, nasal and sinus problems to include allergy and the treatment of hearing loss.