Ear infections can be a painful nuisance for ears of any age, but they are most common with young children. Also called otitis media, ear infections happen when bacteria enters the middle part of the ear, causing them to become infected and inflamed.
The bacteria enters through the tube that connects the nose to the ear, called the Eustachian tube. This tube is smaller in young children, making it easier to get plugged and cause ear infections. Many small children will visit their doctor for an ear infection within their first year.
Other factors besides age may influence a clogged Eustachian tube. Congestion from colds or allergies can plug the tube, trapping germs in the middle ear and causing infection to breed. This infection can produce pus, which pushes against the eardrum and causes redness, soreness, and swelling.
Common ear infection symptoms include:
- High fever
- Difficulty hearing
- Lessened appetite
For children suffering from an ear infection, you may notice them pulling or rubbing their ear, being increasingly fussy, and sleeping poorly. Your doctor will conduct an ear exam to confirm an infection, usually using a tool to visualize the eardrum.
Many ear infections heal on their own within a few days; however, if they do not, a physician will determine a treatment plan depending on age. Antibiotics are frequently prescribed, especially for children under two who are showing significant symptoms. It is crucial to finish the entire prescribed amount, even once symptoms clear up.
If ear infections become chronic or cause hearing loss, your doctor may refer an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT) or recommend ear tubes. Ear tubes are tiny tubes that allow air into the middle hear and prevent fluid from building up. Pain killers can also be used to help make your child more comfortable during an infection.
Ear infections are common and will most likely occur at some point in someone's life; however, steps can be taken to limit their likelihood or frequency. Frequent hand washing is key to preventing an ear infection in a child or adult, especially before eating and after using the restroom.
As for preventing ear infections in children, keep these tips in mind:
- Keep your child’s immunizations up to date, and get flu shots each year.
- Keep your child away from smoke.
- Try not to allow your child to use a pacifier after his or her first birthday.
- Have your child sit up when drinking a bottle or sippy cup.
- If possible, breastfeed your child until he or she is at least six months old.
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