In those worry-filled moments, usually right before a vacation or around 4:30 p.m. on a Friday, when you start suspecting your child has an ear infection, these facts about ear infections every parent should remember become crucial. Given that studies demonstrate over 80% of kids will experience at least one middle-ear infection (acute otitis media) before turning three, it’s evident that Murphy’s Law and Motherhood often intertwine.
About 16 million children visit a pediatrician every year due to ear infections, although the frequency of ear infections has dropped in the recent decade due in part to the pneumococcal vaccine. Ear infections are more common in children than adults because their immune systems are still maturing and because their eustachian tubes, which drain the middle ear’s natural fluid to the back of the throat, are thinner and more horizontal.
“When a child has a cold, the tiny tubes can get bigger and block the flow of liquids,” says Amanda Dempsey, M.D., Ph.D. Fluid buildup behind the eardrum provides a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses already present in a child’s throat and ears.
When bacteria and moisture buildup, they can inflict excruciating pressure on your child’s eardrum. Although ear infections are not always preventable, being aware of these five facts will help you fight the infection and keep your child healthy in the long run.
1. Infant ear infections and teething pain often go hand in hand.
You may worry that your toddler has an ear infection if he starts tugging in his ear. But if he’s cutting his teeth, he might do the same thing since the pain can feel like it’s coming from his ear because of the way the nerves in the back teeth branch out to the middle ear.
Dr. Dempsey believes an ear infection is most likely if he has a temperature and is most uncomfortable when lying down. When teething, the gums become red and puffy. Ear infection symptoms are nonspecific and may be displayed by a child who is sick, tired, or just having a terrible day. These symptoms may include the youngster refusing to eat, sleeping, or crying more than usual.
However, if your child has a fever and you have any suspicions, it is best to have your pediatrician take a look.
2. Not every condition requires antibiotic treatment.
Antibiotics only work on bacterial infections, but it’s estimated that over 40% of ear infections are caused by viruses. An ear infection in a child cannot be diagnosed as bacterial or viral simply by a doctor looking in the ear canal.
The AAP and the AAFP developed joint guidelines for the treatment of acute ear infections in children in 2004. The major takeaway for clinicians is to prescribe antibiotics less frequently and allow the immune system a chance to clear an infection on its own (about two to three days). According to studies, eighty percent of middle ear infections in children resolve on their own within a week, and roughly sixty percent of children, antibiotic-treated or not, experience improvement in their symptoms within 24 hours.
When the kid’s symptoms are mild, and the doctor isn’t convinced after checking in the ear if there’s an infection, “watchful waiting” is appropriate for a healthy child between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. Children older than 2 without significant symptoms can also take it.
Your child’s pediatrician may recommend taking pain medication, such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen, or ear drops containing anesthetic, during the waiting period. Don’t hesitate to call the doctor if your kid’s symptoms persist.
3. Get your child to a doctor if he or she has recurrent ear infections.
If a child has had three ears, nose, and throat infections in six months or four in a year, his pediatrician may recommend that he see an otolaryngologist (an ENT).
“Kids who have frequent infections spend a lot of time feeling ill, and if fluid in their ears doesn’t clear between infections, it can interfere with hearing and language development,” explains Nancy Young, M.D., head of otology at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago.
If your kid has frequent ear infections, an ENT may recommend placing a tympanostomy tube (usually in both ears) to drain excess fluid and enhance hearing. There is no age limit for getting a tube. However, most kids acquire them between the ages of 1 and 3.
The number of youngsters who have this treatment under general anesthetic annually exceeds 500,000. A tiny incision is made in the eardrum, the fluid is suctioned out, and a cylinder the size of an infant’s pinkie nail is inserted to maintain the ear canal open. The tubes are placed in the ear so that air can enter the middle ear, and excess fluid can drain out.
Dr. Max M. April, chairman of the pediatric committee of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head & Neck Surgery, states that ear tubes do not help the eustachian tube. The expectation is that the child’s eustachian tubes will have matured to the point that his ear troubles will be resolved once the tubes fall out on their own after roughly a year. Kaiser Permanente Medical Center conducted research on the effects of tube surgery on children’s ear problems and quality of life one year later and found that 90% of parents reported an improvement.
4. Ear tubes do not prevent ear infections.
Unfortunately, there are no assurances when you put your young kid through the trauma of surgery. Unfortunately, many kids still suffer ear infections occasionally, especially when they have a cold. But your child should experience fewer infections, and those that do occur should be milder in terms of fever and discomfort.
In fact, the most common symptom of an infection in a child with tubes is painless leakage from the ear. It’s possible, though, that you won’t have to force your child to take antibiotics by force: Children who have had tubes placed can take antibiotic ear drops since the medicine can enter the middle ear through the tube.
5. Don’t freak out if your ear drum pops.
A burst eardrum, also known as a ruptured or perforated eardrum, occurs when the tympanic membrane, which separates the middle ear from the outer ear, develops a hole due to accumulated fluid pressure. An ear infection is one possible cause of this condition, and it can obviously cause significant pain and temporary hearing loss.
However, the void typically fills in on its own rather rapidly. Surgery may be required in extreme circumstances, but in most cases, a doctor can prescribe an eardrop medication.
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