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Middle ear infections in children – part 1

Middle ear infections in children – part 1

By Talia Aronowitz

Are ear infections common?

Yes, ear infections are very common in young children. Approximately 3 out of 4 children may have an ear infection by the time they are 3 years of age. Children are more susceptible to middle ear infections due to anatomical immaturity of their Eustachian tubes. The medical term for a middle ear infection is Otitis Media. This occurs in the area behind the eardrum and the inner ear and can include the duct known as the Eustachian tube.

What causes a middle ear infection?

It is commonly caused by a fungal, viral or bacterial infection. The most common cause is an upper respiratory tract infection. Cold and flu can lead to ear infections as the viruses that infect the throat and the nose travel to the ear. This can result in the Eustachian tube becoming so swollen that middle ear ventilation is impaired, which can contribute to  the middle ear becoming inflamed and infected with pus accumulating behind the eardrum. Fluid buildup in the middle ear left untreated can cause excessive pressure in the middle ear space and can cause the eardrum to burst.

Signs and symptoms of a middle ear infection

  • Difficulty hearing
  • A feeling of intense pain in the ear
  • Fluid leaking out of the ear that may be foul smelling. An ENT should be consulted urgently as this means there is a perforation in the eardrum.
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Fever, irritability or nasal congestion
  • Dizziness or change in balance
  • Children may cry more than normal or pull on their ears

What to do if you suspect that your child has an ear infection

It is important not to leave middle ear infections untreated as these can result in complications which can affect a child’s hearing and therefore have an adverse effect on a child’s speech and language development. Children under 3 are more susceptible to ear infections and they are in the phase of critical language development. It is therefore crucial that they are hearing optimally at this stage as they are learning speech and language. Middle ear infections should therefore be attended to with urgency to prevent them affecting a child’s hearing. A doctor, preferably an Ear Nose and Throat specialist (ENT), should be consulted. An audiologist is also able to detect signs of middle ear infections and can determine if a child’s hearing is being affected. The audiologist will then refer the child to an ENT as treatment of infection is handled by the doctor. The ENT and audiologist work closely together to monitor the child’s middle ear and hearing status.

Next week: How to prevent a middle ear infection