Ear infections are usually associated with children, and with good reason: they are the most common pediatric ailment. They largely disappear by the time we reach adulthood, though occasionally even older individuals can experience them. Ear infections are considered acute (lasting a short duration) or chronic (persistent or recurring often).
Causes & Symptoms
Most ear infections are the result of viruses or bacteria following a cold or respiratory infection. These cause the Eustachian tube to swell, trapping fluid in the middle ear and leading to painful ear infections. Because this organ hasn’t yet fully developed in young children, they are especially prone to ear infections.
In addition to earache, symptoms include fluid drainage, hearing loss, fever, headache, and dizziness. Young children may experience crying, irritability, loss of appetite, and have trouble sleeping.
Treatment & Prevention
In the past, antibiotics were the preferred method of treatment for ear infections. Nowadays, many doctors prefer to take a “wait and see” approach since often, an ear infection will run its course naturally. Mild to moderate ear pain can be treated with over-the-counter medications and eardrops, or the use of a warm, moist compress pressed against the ear. Avoid aspirin, as it has been linked to a condition known as Reye’s syndrome that can cause swelling of the brain and liver in children, and may prove fatal.
If symptoms haven’t eased after several days, antibiotics are likely to be administered. It’s important to continue the full course of treatment even if symptoms clear up sooner in order to prevent the infection from returning.
For chronic ear infections, more drastic measures may be necessary. A minor surgical procedure in which ear tubes are implanted in the middle ear is commonly recommended. These tubes provide ventilation and a method for fluids to drain, preventing infection. They remain in place for a minimum of six months to two years, either falling out on their own or undergoing surgical removal.
There are certain steps you can take to help prevent ear infections from occurring. Refrain from smoking, as studies show children who come into contact with tobacco smoke are more likely to develop ear infections. Also try breast feeding your baby, practicing good hygiene by washing your hands often, making sure your child is up to date on his/her vaccines, and enrolling your child in a smaller daycare facility (fewer children = fewer germs).