Ear infections, also known as acute otitis media, can be painful for children and frustrating for parents. As a pediatric ENT specialist, I am most concerned about young children who have recurrent ear infections because they can affect hearing and language development during a crucial stage of life.
Young children are prone to ear infections because their eustachian tubes, small passages that connect the middle ear to back of the throat, are shorter, more narrow and more horizontal than those of adults. This allows fluid to get trapped in the middle ear, which can breed germs and lead to infection and pain.
Toddlers are especially vulnerable to ear infections because their immune systems are still developing, which means they get sick more frequently. Ear infections often follow colds.
Parents should suspect a baby or toddler has an ear infection if the child pulls or tugs at the ear and cries more than usual. Fever, irritability and changes in sleeping and eating patterns may also be signs.
Pediatricians and primary care physicians can distinguish between different forms of ear infections. Your child’s age and medical history will dictate treatment options. Not all cases need to be treated with antibiotics and some clear up on their own.
The child should be referred to an ENT specialist if they’ve had 4 to 6 ear infections in a 6 to 12 month period, or if there’s any indication of hearing loss.
At this point, it may be time to discuss other treatment options, such as surgically inserting tubes in the tympanic membrane to allow the middle ear to better drain. This is an outpatient surgery with minimal risks and the tubes fall out by themselves in 8 to 12 months.
In some cases, frequent ear infections can be associated with large adenoids, which are gland-like structures located in the back of the throat near the eustachian tubes. Doctors may suggest surgically removing the adenoids at the same time the tubes are placed.
Here are some factors that can help reduce the risk of ear infections in infants and young children.
- Second-hand smoke – Parents who smoke can increase the frequency and severity of ear infections in their children.
- Breastfeeding – Babies who are breastfed tend to have fewer ear infections.
- Exposure to other children, especially those who are sick – Children who have frequent colds are at higher risk for ear infections.
- Handwashing – Parents should be good models. Frequent and thorough hand-washing is one of the most important ways to reduce the transmission of germs that cause colds.
If you suspect your child has an ear infection, don’t hesitate to seek medical care. And parents of children with recurrent ear infections should rest assured that as your child grows, the tiny canals of his ears will also grow longer and stronger and will become less susceptible to infection.