Ear infections, also known as otitis media, are one of the most common childhood medical problems. Ear infections are the most frequent cause of doctor visits for children. In fact, three out of four children in the United States will have at least one ear infection by the time they reach the age of three.
Causes of Ear Infections
While ear infections can occur in any of the three parts of the ear, they most commonly develop in the middle ear. Ear infections are caused when fluid builds up behind the eardrum in the Eustachian tubes, the tubes that connect the ears to the nose. This moist environment is conducive to the rapid growth of bacteria which result in the infection. Occasionally, although ear infections are usually caused by bacteria, viruses or allergies may be the underlying factor.
Since children's Eustachian tubes are narrower and shorter than those of adults, children are more likely to develop ear infections. In fact, ear infections are relatively rare in adults.
Risk Factors for Ear Infections
Certain individuals are predisposed to ear infections by heredity or anatomy. Feeding position can also be a risk factor as babies who are bottle-fed tend to develop more ear infections than breastfed babies. Children in group child care may be more likely to develop ear infections simply because they are exposed to more children who may be sick. Children exposed to secondhand smoke are also more likely to develop ear infections, as are children with weakened immune systems or allergies or those who use a pacifier.
Symptoms of Ear Infections
Typical symptoms of ear infections may include the following:
- Ear pain
- Difficulty hearing
- Discharge from the ear
- Loss of appetite or vomiting
- Sensation of fullness or popping in the ears
- Balance difficulties
Since young children often develop ear infections before they become verbal, parents may have to be detectives, alert to symptoms such as ear pulling, frequent crying, irritability and difficulty sleeping, particularly when these symptoms are present during or after a cold.
Diagnosis of Ear Infections
Ear infections are diagnosed through a thorough physical examination. To get a clear view of the eardrum, the doctor will use a small lighted tube called an otoscope. The physician may also perform a hearing test to evaluate whether there is any hearing loss, particularly if the patient has experienced recurrent infections.
Patients should be checked after ear infections to determine whether any fluid remains trapped behind the eardrum, a condition known as otitis media with effusion. Even though this condition may not result in any symptoms, it must be treated to prevent complications.
Treatment of Ear Infections
Treatment for ear infections usually focuses on relieving pain and congestion through oral medication or ear drops since most ear infections resolve on their own within two or three days. Antibiotics are only prescribed if the infection is bacterial, since viral infections do not respond to antibiotic treatment. If an ear infection is severe or resistant to medication, or if a patient develops chronic ear infections, the doctor may recommend the use of corticosteroids or the implantation of ear tubes to promote drainage. If the cause of repeated infections is determined to be anatomical, the doctor may recommend another surgical procedure.