Ear infections in children
Three out of four children experience an ear infection by the time they are 3 years old. In fact, ear infections are the most common illnesses in babies and young children.
Are there different types of ear infections?
There are two main types of ear infections. The first type is acute otitis media (AOM), meaning parts of the ear are infected and swollen. It also means that fluid and mucus are trapped inside the ear, which can be painful. The second type is otitis media with effusion (fluid), or OME. This means fluid and mucus stay trapped in the ear after the infection is over. OME makes it harder for the ear to fight new infections. This fluid can also affect your child’s hearing.
How does otitis media happen?
Otitis media usually happens when viruses and/or bacteria get inside the ear and cause an infection, happening as a result of another illness like a cold. If your child gets sick, it might affect his or her ears. It’s harder for children to fight illness than it is for adults, so children develop ear infections more often. Some researchers believe that other factors, such as being around cigarette smoke, can contribute to ear infections.
What’s happening inside the ear when my child has an ear infection?
When the ears are infected, the eustachian tubes become inflamed and swollen. The adenoids can also become infected.
- The eustachian tubes keep air pressure stable in the ear and also help supply the ears with fresh air.
- Adenoids are clumps of cells that fight infections and are located near the eustachian tubes.
Swollen and inflamed eustachian tubes often get clogged with fluid and mucus from a cold. If the fluids plug the openings of the eustachian tubes, air and fluid get trapped inside the ear. These tubes are smaller and straighter in children than they are in adults, making it harder for fluid to drain out of the ear, a reason that children get more ear infections than adults. The infections are generally painful.
Adenoids are located in the throat, near the eustachian tubes. Adenoids can become infected and swollen. They can also block the openings of the eustachian tubes, trapping air and fluid. Just like the eustachian tubes, the adenoids are larger in children than in adults, so they can easily block the opening of the eustachian tube.
Can otitis media affect my child’s hearing?
An ear infection can cause temporary hearing, speech and language problems. An ear infection affects important parts in the ear that help us hear. Sounds around us are collected by the outer ear. Then sound travels to the middle ear. After that, sound moves on to the inner ear, where sounds are turned into electrical signals and sent to the brain. An ear infection affects the whole ear, but especially the middle and inner ear.
How do I know if my child has an ear infection?
It is not always easy to know if your child has an ear infection. If your child is not old enough to say, “my ear hurts,” here are some other symptoms that signal an ear infection:
- Do they tug or pull at their ears?
- Do they cry more than usual?
- Do you see fluid draining out of their ears?
- Do they have trouble sleeping?
- Can they keep their balance?
- Do they have trouble hearing?
- Do they seem not to respond to quiet sounds?
A child with an ear infection may show you any of these signs. If you see any of them, call us today.
What will a doctor do?
Your doctor will examine your child’s ear to see if they have an ear infection. The doctor may also give antibiotics, which only work against bacteria that cause illness. Antibiotics are not effective against viruses, such as those associated with a cold. In order to be effective, antibiotics must be taken until they are completed. A few days after the medicine starts working, your child may stop pulling on his or her ear and appear to be feeling better. This does not mean the infection is gone; the medicine must still be taken to completion, otherwise the bacteria can come back.
Your doctor may also prescribe acetaminophen, which do not help in the prevention or treatment of ear infections, just the symptoms.
Am I giving the medicine correctly?
If your doctor gives you a prescription for medicine for your child, make sure you understand the directions completely before you leave his or her office. Here are a few suggestions about giving medicine to your child:
- Read: Make sure the pharmacy has given you printed information about the medicine and clear instructions about how to give it to your child. Read the information that comes with the medicine. If you have any problems understanding the information, ask the pharmacist, your doctor, or a nurse. You should have the answers to the following questions:
- Does the medicine need to be refrigerated?
- How many times a day will I be giving this medicine?
- How many days will they take this medicine?
- Should it be given with food or without food?
- Plan: Sometimes it is hard to remember when you have given your child a dose of medicine. Before you give the first dose, make a written plan or chart to cover all of the days of the medication. Some children may require 10 to 14 days of treatment.
- Follow Through: Be sure to give all of the medicine to your child. Make sure it is given at the right times. If your doctor asks you to bring your child back for a recheck, do it on schedule. Your doctor wants to know if the ears are clear of fluid and if the infection has stopped. Write down and ask the doctor any questions you have before you leave his or her office.
Will my child need surgery?
Some children with otitis media need surgery. The most common surgical treatment, called myringotomy, involves having small tubes placed inside the ear; recommended when fluids from an ear infection stay in the ear for several months. At that stage, fluid may cause hearing loss and speech problems. A doctor called an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat surgeon) will help you through this process if your child needs an operation.
In a myringotomy, a surgeon makes a small opening in the ear drum. A tube is then placed in the opening and works to relieve pressure in the clogged ear so that the child can hear again. Fluid cannot build up in the ear if the tube is venting it with fresh air.
After a few months, the tubes will fall out on their own. In rare cases, a child may need to have a myringotomy more than once.
Another kind of surgery removes the adenoids. This is called an adenoidectomy. Removing the adenoids has been shown to help some children with otitis media who are between the ages of 4 and 8.
What about children in daycare, pre-school, or school?
Even before your child has an ear infection, ask the daycare program or school about their medication policy. Sometimes you will need a note from your doctor for the staff at the school. The note can tell the people at your child’s school how and when to give your child medicine if it is needed during school hours. Some schools will not give children medicine. If this is the case at your child’s school, ask your doctor how to schedule your child’s medicine.
What else can I do for my child?
The best thing you can do is to know the warning signs of ear infection and be on the lookout if your child gets a cold. If you think your child has an ear infection, call the doctor.
Try to refrain from smoking around children; smoke is not good for the delicate parts inside the ear.