Q&A: What is an ear infection and how can it be treated?
I grew up having terrible ear infections, and my toddler just recently started pulling on her ears. Can you explain what ear infections are and what's being done about them these days?
Ear infections (also known as otitis media) generally occur when fluid builds up in the middle ear and becomes infected. There are two types of otitis media. The first, known as otitis media with effusion, is simply a buildup of fluid without infection. (Scientists may have recently found a genetic link to this condition; read about it here.) The second, acute otitis media, is the one that will usually give your baby the classic symptoms of an ear infection.
Signs of Ear Infections
The symptoms of acute otitis media include pain and pressure (signaled by lots of crying!) and fever. Most times ear infections are a by-product of a cold. Normally, mucous will drain from the nose and ears by coming through the Eustachian tubes (the tubes that connect the middle ear to the throat) or the body reabsorbs it. For one reason or another, some children’s tubes seem to be less efficient at draining this fluid; or, the fluid may become trapped as a result of swelling or inflammation. The slow-moving or stagnant fluid then becomes infected.
Ear Infection Treatment and Prevention
Most doctors will treat acute otitis media with antibiotics, although some research shows that an infection may resolve on its own. Your pediatrician will most likely recommend a pain reliever to decrease the associated discomfort and to reduce fever.
Ear infections are not contagious, but the virus (cold) that started it in the first place is! Ear infections are generally more common in the winter months and more common for children in daycare who may be exposed to other children. Ear infections may be more common in the six-month to two-year range, but can happen anytime in childhood.
How to prevent ear infections?
- Practice good hand washing.
- Assure your child is receiving good nutrition and rest to boost her immune function.
- Breastfeed if possible: Breastfed babies are far less prone to infections.
- Avoid secondhand smoke.
- If your child gets repeat infections, find out if she has allergies.
- Don’t let your child drink while lying flat.
What About Ear Tubes?
For a child who has repeated ear infections, the doctor may suggest the placement of tubes. The surgical procedure, also known as a
myringotomy, is the placement of a small tube (by an
ENT) in a tiny slit made in the eardrum. This tube reduces pressure. It lets the fluid out and air in—preventing the backup of fluid mentioned earlier. Doctors don’t agree about the
efficacy of this procedure. Talk to your own doctor about his or her philosophy for treating recurrent ear infections.