Ear infections are simply inflammations of the middle ear, and they are generally triggered by bacteria which accumulate behind the eardrum. People of any age can be subject to ear infections, but children have them at a more frequent rate than do adults. By the time of a child’s third birthday, five out of six children will have had an ear infection at least once, and that makes it the single most common cause for children to be taken to a doctor.

One of the problems with this is that some children are just too young to verbalize what they are experiencing, and can’t really tell you that their ear hurts. In this situation, a parent should be on the lookout for symptoms that characterize an ear infection, such as pulling at the ears, balance problems, fevers, difficulty with sleeping, excessive crying, drainage from the ears, and non-responsiveness to quiet sounds.

Causes of Ear Infections

One of the most common causes of an ear infection in a child is an upper respiratory infection, a cold, or a sore throat. In the case of the upper respiratory infection, related bacteria can easily spread to the middle ear, and with a cold, the virus can be drawn into the middle ear as an offshoot of the main infection. In any of these cases, fluid begins to build up around the eardrum.

The reason that children are more susceptible to ear infections than adults relates to the fact that the eustachian tubes in a child’s ear are smaller than an adult’s, and that makes it more difficult for any fluids to exit the middle ear, even in the absence of any kind of infection. When those eustachian tubes become swollen by a cold or other illness, drainage may slow down to almost nothing, and blockage will be the likely result. Complicating matters, the immune system for a child is not nearly as developed or robust as an adult’s, and that makes it much harder for children to fend off the effects of any kind of infection.

Children ear infections, otoscope

Your doctor will likely use an instrument called an otoscope to determine whether your child’s eardrum is red and/or swollen with an infection.

Diagnosing a Middle Ear Infection

When you take your child to see a doctor about a possible ear infection, the doctor’s first question will be about your child’s recent medical conditions. Your doctor will try and find out if your child has had a sore throat or a head cold recently. Then the doctor will ask about any of the other common symptoms associated with an ear infection, to see if your child has been experiencing any of these. After gaining this kind of information, your doctor will probably use an instrument called an otoscope, which is a lighted instrument that can see inside the eardrum to determine whether it is red and/or swollen with an infection. If this is inconclusive, your doctor might then use a diagnostic test known as tympanometry to measure eardrum sensitivity at various points.

Treatment for Middle Ear Infections

One of the most common treatments for a middle ear infection is an antibiotic called amoxicillin, which is generally prescribed over a period of 7 to 10 days. If your child is experiencing an inordinate amount of pain or discomfort, your doctor may also recommend pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen, and possibly even eardrops which can be delivered directly into the ear.

In cases where an ear infection cannot be definitively diagnosed, your doctor may want to adopt a wait-and-see attitude about the condition, to see if it worsens into an actual ear infection. This is more common in very young children, between the ages of six months and two years. However, even when the wait-and-see approach is adopted, your doctor will probably ask to have your child returned within three days to check on whether symptoms have worsened.

If definitive diagnosis is still lacking, it is likely that a program of antibiotic treatment will be initiated, to be sure it gets no worse. When antibiotics are prescribed, it’s very important that the child takes the prescribed dosage throughout the entire period of the prescription, so that bacteria do not have the chance to develop resistance to the medication.

Preventing Middle Ear Infections

There is no rock-solid way to prevent middle ear infections in children, and the best approach that can be adapted calls for limiting the risk factors which may trigger an ear infection. Vaccinating your child against influenza is one good track to take, and limiting your child’s exposure to children known to be sick is a good idea as well, although obviously this is not 100% enforceable.

Good hygiene for everyone in the household is important: for instance washing hands and sneezing into your elbow, to help prevent the spread of germs to your child. It’s not a good idea for anyone in the household to be smoking, and statistics bear out the fact that where at least one person at home smokes, there are more ear infections than in smokeless homes. One last method of limiting the risk factor for developing ear infections is to make sure that your infant is never put down for a long period of time, such as overnight, with a bottle in hand.