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It’s the middle of the night (because that’s when most children’s illnesses tend to take place) and your child awakes complaining of ear pain. You have been through this before. You know it is probably an ear infection before you even bring him to the doctor. Ear infections can be quite painful, especially to a young child. Unfortunately the dreaded ear infection is also a rite of passage for most kids. Most kids will have had at least one infection by the time he or she reaches a year old. Others will experience ear infections on a recurrent basis. So, just what is an ear infection and why does it seem to mostly target young children? Most importantly, how can we protect our children from developing one?

Otitis Media

Otitis media is an infection of the middle ear. It is one of the main reasons children are brought to the doctor. An infection of the middle ear occurs when bacteria and germs enter the middle ear. The eustachian tube is a tube located in the middle ear that acts as a passageway between the throat and the ear. The function of the eustachian tube is to allow air to pass in and out of the middle ear which helps to regulate the level of pressure. Since a child’s eustachian tube is so short, it is less effective in keeping germs and bacteria from entering the ear. Infection develops as a result. The infection produces fluid and continues to fill the middle ear until pressure and pain result.

The eustachian tube can be blocked for other reasons such as allergies, a cold, or due to enlarged adenoids.

An acute form of otitis media will usually resolve within 7-10 days; however, some ear infections may be resistant to antibiotic therapy and take longer to heal, or may become recurrent. In some cases, fluid remains in the ear resulting in further infections and even hearing loss.

Symptoms of Otitis Media

Pain and fever are two of the most common symptoms associated with otitis media. Since ear infections tend to strike young children, your son or daughter may be too young to articulate where the pain is coming from. Most children will cry or tug on the infected ear. He or she may also have a difficult time sleeping, develop a loss of appetite, become irritable, and may even have trouble hearing.

Treatment of Otitis Media

• Antibiotics are an effective treatment of middle ear infections if the infection is caused by bacteria. Antibiotics are ineffective on virus-related infections. If you have been prescribed an antibiotic, be sure to take the medication as recommended. Do not stop the medication because you are feeling better. Stopping an antibiotic too early can result in recurrent or secondary infection. Your pediatrician may also prescribe ear drops to help manage pain.
• Acetaminophen and ibuprofen can be used to treat fever and pain. Do not give aspirin to your child as it has been linked to a dangerous disease known as Reye’s Syndrome.
• A heating pad can also be used to help alleviate ear pain.

Why Earaches Are So Common In Children

As mentioned, the eustachian tube in a child is much smaller than that of an adult making it more difficult to keep germs and bacteria from entering the ear.

Certain risk factors may put children at higher risk of developing ear infections. These risks include:

• Living with a smoker
• Previous infections
• Family history of ear infections
• Day care
• Premature or low birth weight
• Frequent colds
• Brings bottle to bed
• Uses a pacifier
• If you are a boy
• Allergies with nasal congestion

Can Ear Infections Affect My Child’s Hearing?

The most common cause of (temporary)hearing loss in children is from recurrent middle ear infections; subsequently, speech and language can also be affected. Speak with your child’s pediatrician, if he or she suffers from recurrent ear infections.

Hearing may also be affected if fluid remains in the middle ear after the infection has cleared up. This condition is called otitis media with effusion (buildup of fluid.) Hearing typically returns in a few months after the fluid has gone away. Your pediatrician will likely want to follow up with your child to make sure the fluid is in fact gone.

Your child’s hearing should be checked in instances when the fluid remains for longer than a few months. Your pediatrician may also recommend exploring the option of ear tubes (tympanostomy) in order to drain the fluid from the ear. Ear tubes may also help reduce the number of times your child gets an ear infection.

Ear Tubes

Ear tubes are plastic tubes inserted into the ear in order to restore balance to the level of pressure and also to promote drainage. These tubes are surgically inserted into the eardrum and remain for between six and nine months until they either fall out on their own, or until the doctor deems them unnecessary. Since the placement of these tubes is a surgical procedure, your doctor will discuss the associated risks and benefits.

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