An ear infection occurs when fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear following a viral or bacterial infection. This painful affliction is most common in children, but can affect people of all ages. Ear infections can be either acute (of short duration) or chronic (persisting or reoccurring frequently).
What Causes an Ear Infection?
The majority of ear infections are viral or bacterial in nature, usually occurring after a cold or upper respiratory infection. These conditions cause swelling of the Eustachian tube, a small canal that connects the middle ear to the nostrils and provides an outlet for fluid drainage, trapping germs and fluid in the middle ear and leading to infection. The result is a painful earache that may be accompanied by fluid drainage from the affected ear and a loss of hearing. Children may display an increase in crying and irritability, and suffer from fever, headache, loss of appetite, dizziness, and difficulty sleeping.
Treatment & Prevention
As frequent as ear infections may be, they are a common childhood malady given that the Eustachian tubes in children are smaller and more prone to blockages. Many times, doctors will advise taking a wait and see approach for those experiencing mild ear pain, to allow the infection to run its course naturally. Pain can be managed with a warm, moist compress held against the ear, and over-the-counter pain medications and eardrops. Avoid giving aspirin to children and teenagers, as it has been linked with Reye’s syndrome, a potentially fatal condition that causes swelling of the brain and liver.
Treatment with antibiotics is usually recommended for ear infections caused by bacteria. It is important to continue the full course of treatment as directed, even if symptoms clear up, in order to prevent a recurring infection.
Chronic ear infections may require a surgical solution such as ear tubes. These are implanted in the middle ear to provide ventilation and drainage of fluids. They remain in place for six months to a year, on average. Some children benefit from surgery to remove the tonsils or adenoids, particularly in cases where they are oversized.
There are certain steps you can take to help prevent ear infections from occurring. Refrain from smoking, as studies show children who come into contact with tobacco smoke are more likely to develop ear infections. Also try breast feeding your baby, practicing good hygiene by washing your hands often, making sure your child is up to date on his/her vaccines, and enrolling your child in a smaller daycare facility (fewer children = fewer germs).
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.
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 a low-grade fever and hearing loss. Infants are often fussier than usual, and may cry inconsolably, refuse to eat and have trouble sleeping. They may also pull or tug on the ear. 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.
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, fewer children mean fewer germs.
If you or someone you care for is experiencing problems their ears, please contact our office at 717-728-9700 to schedule an appointment.