Living Well: Ear infections common, but shouldn’t be ignored
If your children have never had an ear infection, they’re anomalies, because five out of six kids experience an ear infection by their 3rd birthday, according to the National Institutes of Health. Ear infections cause pain, often indicated by tugging on the ears, loss of appetite, irritability, fever, and other cold-like symptoms. If symptoms last more than a day, especially for a child younger than six months old, it’s a good idea to call your doctor.
Ventilation of the middle ear is accomplished through the eustachian tubes, a pair of narrow tubes that run from the middle ear to high in the back of the throat. The eustachian tubes are narrower and more horizontal in children, which makes the natural process of healthy draining more difficult. Swelling, inflammation, and mucus in the eustachian tubes from an upper respiratory infection or allergy can cause the accumulation of fluids in the middle ear, which can become infected.
When your child has multiple ear infections in a year, your pediatrician might refer you to an ear, nose, and throat specialist. An ENT might recommend ear tubes, small tubes placed in the eardrum to allow air to enter the middle ear and prevent fluids from accumulating and usually remain in the ear for six to nine months. While the decision to place tubes in the ear is a big one, left untreated, chronic infections can cause hearing loss and affect speech development. Ear tubes may also help prevent or at least reduce recurring ear infections.
“We have firm criteria on when to place ear tubes, and I am a stickler on meeting those criteria. Sometimes, I advise waiting if we’re coming out of the cold and flu season,” said Dr. Robert McLean, ENT physician who sees both adults and children at Memorial Regional Health.
According to the Mayo Clinic, ear tube placement is relatively safe but does require general anesthesia and, of course, like any surgical procedure, has some risk. The tubes aren’t permanent and usually fall out on their own.
Risk factors for children can include group child care, due to greater exposure to infections and cold; exposure to tobacco smoke or high levels of air pollution; and just the winter months, when colds and flu are more prevalent. Babies who drink from a bottle, especially when lying down, tend to have more ear infections than breast-fed babies.
While more common in children, adults can get ear infections, too. Symptoms can include dizziness or vertigo, nausea and vomiting, problems with balance, hearing loss, ear pain, and sometimes fever. Treatment can include antibiotics, or just time, if your physician thinks the infection is viral rather than bacterial.