How to Recognize and Treat Chronic Ear Infections
Ear infections are common among young children, resulting in millions of office visits and antibiotic prescriptions annually. Acute otitis media includes intense signs and symptoms of infection and inflammation and is the most common bacterial illness in children for which antibacterial agents are prescribed in the United States.
Otitis media with effusion (OME) is an even more common type of ear infection. About 90% of children have OME at some time before school age, most often between ages six months and four years old. OME often follows colds and viral infections or actual ear infections and will usually clear up on its own without treatment. It is important to visit your otolaryngologist with the onset of an ear infection to prevent further development and worsening of symptoms.
Symptoms of an Ear Infection
Your child may have many symptoms during an ear infection. The most common symptom of an ear infection is pain. Older children can tell you that their ears hurt, but younger children may only seem irritable and cry. You may notice this more during feeding because sucking and swallowing may cause painful pressure changes in the middle ear.
Loss of appetite may occur, as well, because of the pain in their ear. In addition, your child may have trouble sleeping because of their ear pain and may exhibit a fever ranging from 100°F to 104°F. You may also notice yellow or white fluid, possibly blood-tinged, draining from your child’s ear. The fluid may have a foul odor and will look different from normal earwax. Pain and pressure often decrease after this drainage begins, but this doesn’t always mean that the infection is going away. If this happens it’s not an emergency, but your child should see their otolaryngologist.
Preventative Measures for your Child
Teach your child to wash their hands frequently and thoroughly, and encourage your child not to share eating and drinking utensils. These simple rules will help in preventing common colds and other illnesses. If possible, limit the time that your child spends in group childcare or a childcare setting with fewer children, as well.
Avoid second-hand smoke. Make sure that no one smokes in your home and away from home, stay in smoke-free environments. If possible, breast-feed your baby for at least six months because breast milk contains antibodies that may offer protection from ear infections.
When Ear Infections Lead to Tubes
Some kids are particularly susceptible to ear infections because of their environmental and lifestyle factors. Although these infections are relatively easy to treat, a child who has multiple ear infections that does not get better easily or has evidence of hearing loss or speech delay may be a candidate for ear tube surgery. During this surgery, small tubes are placed in the eardrums to ventilate the area behind the eardrum and keep the pressure equalized to atmospheric pressure in the middle ear.
Since most kids have had infections in both ears, surgery is often performed in both, which is called a bilateral myringotomy, or BMT. A tiny tube, called pressure equalization or tympanostomy tube is inserted into the eardrum to ventilate and equalize pressure in the middle ear. This will help to prevent future infections and the accumulation of fluid, and will help normalize hearing.
With proper consultation with your otolaryngologist, your child’s ear infections can receive proper treatment, diagnosis and relief.