As a parent, it can cause great stress knowing your child is sick and not knowing how to soothe him/her. It is especially frightening when your child is not old enough to tell you what hurts. Ear infections are common in children from infancy until age 2 or 3, because their Eustachian tubes are not yet fully formed. In an adult, the Eustachian tube is hard and curved, and works to improve airflow to the middle ear to reduce fluid buildup. In a young child, the Eustachian tube is long and floppy, and is more prone to infection because of that fluid. There are factors that can increase a child’s likelihood of developing an ear infection. Let’s look at the symptoms and some possible causes.
Recognizing Your Child May Have An Ear Infection
In infants, the main symptoms for ear infection are:
- Unexpected irritability
- Nasal discharge and eye drainage, often on one side
- Sudden change in eating and/or sleeping habits
Toddlers can present all of the above symptoms, but are usually less likely to present with a fever. Additionally, toddlers may exhibit these signs possibly indicating ear infection:
- Trouble getting settled at night
- Grabbing on ear
- Talking about an ear that hurts, if the child is verbal
Since these symptoms can indicate an upper respiratory infection or other illness, it is very difficult to diagnose an ear infection without an examination. In most cases, a pediatrician will diagnose and treat an ear infection, but if treatment becomes repetitive and symptoms are persistent, the child might be referred to an ENT specialist.
Generally, if the child gets 4 ear infections in 6 months or 6 infections in a year, or if the infection goes on for 6 weeks to 3 months, it’s time for an ENT specialist to see a patient.
Reasons a Child Might Get an Ear Infection
Because infants’ and toddlers’ Eustachian tubes are not fully formed, they tend to develop a mucus buildup when the child has an upper respiratory infection or cold. The child’s own bacteria will go to the fluid in the middle ear and create inflammation, leading to the ear infection.
Other scenarios can trigger or provoke an ear infection. These include:
- Secondhand smoke - consistent tobacco pollutants can inflame the nasal area and Eustachian tube and it can become congested
- Use of a pacifier - when a child sucks on a pacifier, it creates negative pressure on the Eustachian tube, causing fluid to build up
- Acid reflux, or GERD, has a strong association with ear infections - since the child is laying on his/her back most of the time, reflux goes back up into the nose and Eustachian tube
- Daycare scenarios provide chronic viral challenges – it is certainly well understood that kids spread illnesses much more frequently in these scenarios
Other Factors Leading To Ear Infections in Babies
Some special needs children might experience chronic ear infections. Children with cleft palates, Down syndrome and craniofacial abnormalities tend to have poor Eustachian tube function, even after the toddler stage.
Babies with food allergies might also be more prone to ear infections than babies without these sensitivities.
Children of all ages with ear infections will often be treated with antibiotics, but often ear tubes are the answer for babies with recurring or chronic ear infections.