Ear infections are most often associated with children. In fact, they account for more pediatric visits than any other condition or disease. However, they aren’t limited solely to kids; people of all ages can experience otitis media, the clinical term for an ear infection.
Ear infections occur when germs from a virus or bacteria cause swelling in the middle ear, trapping fluids behind the eardrum. Inflammation of the Eustachian tube, which functions as a conduit for draining fluid from the ear, is the primary triggering mechanism for otitis media. It’s also the reason why children suffer proportionately more ear infections than adults; their Eustachian tubes are smaller and still undergoing development, making them more prone to blockages.
Colds, flu, and strep throat are the primary causes of ear infection. Symptoms include ear pain that may range from mild to severe, fever, drainage from the ear, vomiting, and trouble hearing. Children may display increased irritability, lose their appetite, and have trouble sleeping.
Ear infections are categorized as acute (of short duration) or chronic (persistent or recurrent). Acute otitis media is most common, and easiest to treat. Home remedies work best, as the majority of ear infections get better without medical intervention. Over-the-counter medications and eardrops can be used to manage pain, but refrain from giving your child aspirin, which has been linked to a dangerous disease called Reye’s syndrome. Holding a warm compress (a washcloth or heating pad) to the ear brings relief, as well.
If your doctor believes the ear infection has been caused by bacteria, you’ll be given a round of antibiotics to treat the infection.
Chronic otitis media (defined as three or more ear infections over six months, or four in a year) is the result of fluid remaining trapped in the ear even after swelling has subsided, or returning repeatedly. Antibiotics are not a good long-term solution since bacteria can become resistant after extended use. In these cases, a surgical solution may be the preferred treatment option. Ear tubes that keep fluid from building up by allowing drainage from the middle ear, or removal of the tonsils and adenoids, may be an effective strategy in preventing future ear infections.