One of the most common childhood ailments is an ear infection. This occurs when fluid is trapped in the middle ear, causing pressure and pain, and usually follows a viral or bacterial infection. Most ear infections are acute and heal quickly, but some children are susceptible to chronic ear infections that last longer and recur frequently.
What Are the Type of Ear Infections?
- Internal ear infection (otitis interna): This usually occurs when the inner ear is inflamed due to a virus, but may also be caused by middle ear bacteria spreading to the inner ear. Symptoms include sudden onset of severe vertigo, nausea, and vomiting, and are sometimes so severe that emergency room care and medication are required to control the vertigo.
- Middle ear infection (otitis media): Middle ear infections are very common in childhood but can occur at any age, and are usually accompanied by an upper respiratory tract infection with coughing and nasal discharge. These infections are most commonly caused by a blockage of the Eustachian tube, which creates swelling in the mucous membranes. Antibiotic treatment is the best course of action in these cases.
- Outer ear infection (otitis externa): When the outer ear and ear canal are inflamed, this “earache” is commonly referred to as “swimmer’s ear.” The skin in the ear canal becomes inflamed, swells, and is tender to the touch. Outer ear infections can be caused by polluted water entering the ear canal, particularly when the skin has slight tears that allow for bacteria and fungus to grow. This is the only type of ear infection that is visible with the naked eye.
Why Do Children Get Ear Infections?
To be fair, children aren’t the only ones who develop ear infections. These can strike people of all ages. But the majority of ear infections are confined to younger patients. We can blame this on anatomy.
Because children are still growing physically, some of their internal organs may also be temporarily underdeveloped. This is true of the Eustachian tube, the canal that connects the middle ear to the nostrils, providing an outlet for fluid drainage. Because the Eustachian tube is smaller in children, it is more prone to swelling; when this occurs, fluid is trapped in the middle ear. This fluid presses against the eardrum, causing pain, and can harbor germs that lead to infection. The result is an earache and, in some cases, loss of hearing. When the infection does not completely go away or returns often, it is referred to as chronic.
Signs of Chronic Ear Infection
The hallmark signs of ear infection are pain and pressure in the ear and fluid drainage. These may be accompanied by:
- Low-grade fever
- Hearing loss
- Pulling or tugging on ears
- Low appetite
- Difficulty sleeping
Symptoms may be milder in chronic ear infections. Should your child display any of these symptoms, bring him or her to the doctor; the sooner an acute ear infection is treated, the lower the chances of it developing into a chronic condition. You can also contact us at any of our locations to make an appointment for your child.
How Are Chronic Ear Infections Treated?
Treating an ear infection begins at home. To help soothe symptoms, gently press a warm washcloth against the affected ear. You may give your child eardrops and over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help relieve pain. Avoid aspirin, which can be dangerous to young children.
Your child’s doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat a chronic ear infection. These should be taken until used up, even if your child’s symptoms appear to be improving; otherwise, the infection could worsen.
When medication is not effective, a surgical solution involving ear tubes may be considered. These are inserted in the middle ear and provide ventilation and fluids, keeping the ear clear and preventing infection. Most ear tubes remain in place anywhere from six to eighteen months and eventually fall out on their own. If not, surgery to remove them is performed.
Complications from Untreated Chronic Ear Infections
If left untreated, chronic ear infections can lead to a variety of complications including hearing loss, damage to the bones in the middle ear, balance problems, a middle ear cyst called a cholesteatoma, facial paralysis, and inflammation of the brain. For these reasons, early detection and treatment are crucial. Better still is prevention.
You can’t always stave off an ear infection, but there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of your child developing one. These include breastfeeding your baby, making sure he or she is up to date on vaccinations, practicing good hygiene (e.g., regular hand washing), keeping your child away from tobacco smoke, and enrolling him/her in as small a daycare or preschool facility as possible. Simply put, being around fewer children means exposure to fewer germs.