An ear infection occurs when fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear following a viral or bacterial infection. This painful affliction is most common in children, but can affect people of all ages. Ear infections can be either acute (of short duration) or chronic (persisting or reoccurring frequently).
The majority of ear infections are viral or bacterial in nature, usually occurring after a cold or upper respiratory infection. These conditions cause swelling of the Eustachian tube, a small canal that connects the middle ear to the nostrils and provides an outlet for fluid drainage, trapping germs and fluid in the middle ear and leading to infection.
Because children are still growing physically, some of their internal organs may also be temporarily underdeveloped. This is true of the Eustachian tube, the canal that connects the middle ear to the nostrils, providing an outlet for fluid drainage. Because the Eustachian tube is smaller in children, it is more prone to swelling; when this occurs, fluid is trapped in the middle ear. This fluid presses against the eardrum, causing pain, and can harbor germs that lead to infection. The result is an earache and, in some cases, loss of hearing. When the infection does not completely go away or returns often, it is referred to as chronic.
The hallmark signs of ear infection are pain and pressure in the ear and fluid drainage. These may be accompanied by a low-grade fever and hearing loss. Infants are often fussier than usual, and may cry inconsolably, refuse to eat and have trouble sleeping. They may also pull or tug on the ear. Symptoms may be milder in chronic ear infections. Should your child display any of these symptoms, bring them to the doctor; the sooner an acute ear infection is treated, the lower the chances of it developing into a chronic condition.
Treating an ear infection begins at home. To help soothe symptoms, gently press a warm washcloth against the affected ear. You may give your child eardrops and over-the-counter medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen to help relieve pain. Avoid aspirin, which can be dangerous to young children.
Your child’s doctor will likely prescribe antibiotics to treat a chronic ear infection. These should be taken until used up, even if your child’s symptoms appear to be improving; otherwise, the infection could worsen.
When medication is not effective, a surgical solution involving ear tubes may be considered. These are inserted in the middle ear and provide ventilation and fluids, keeping the ear clear and preventing infection. Most ear tubes remain in place anywhere from six to 18 months and eventually fall out on their own. If not, surgery to remove them is performed.
If left untreated, chronic ear infections can lead to a variety of complications including hearing loss, damage to the bones in the middle ear, balance problems, a middle ear cyst called a cholesteatoma, facial paralysis and inflammation of the brain. For these reasons, early detection and treatment are crucial. Better still is prevention.
You can’t always stave off an ear infection, but there are steps you can take to reduce the chances of your child developing one. These include breast-feeding your baby, making sure he or she is up-to-date on vaccinations, practicing good hygiene (e.g., regular hand-washing), keeping your child away from tobacco smoke, and enrolling them in as small a day care or preschool facility as possible. Simply put, fewer children mean fewer germs.
If you’re a parent, it probably comes as no surprise that middle ear infections are common in children, particularly those between the ages of six months and two years. Known as otitis media, these are caused by a number of factors, both physical and environmental. Most ear infections clear up on their own, or are treated with antibiotics. But in some children, they can become a chronic problem that causes other issues, such as delays in speech development and learning. For these children, ear tubes may be recommended.
What Are Ear Tubes?
Ear tubes are tiny cylinders, made from plastic or other materials, which are surgically inserted into the eardrum. They are meant to remain in place from six months to as long as several years; at some point they will either fall out on their own, or will need to be surgically removed. They go by a variety of names including tympanostomy tubes, ventilation tubes and PE (pressure equalization) tubes.
The surgery, known as a myringotomy, is an outpatient procedure performed under general anesthesia. Fluid behind the eardrum is suctioned out, a small incision is made in the eardrum, and the tube is inserted. The procedure is quick and painless, and usually takes no longer than 15 minutes.
Myringotomy is a common and safe procedure, and complications are rare. Occasionally, patients will experience a perforation of the eardrum, scarring or infection.
Benefits of Ear Tubes
Ear tubes provide ventilation to the middle ear and allow fluids to drain, reducing the chances of an ear infection from occurring. They can restore hearing loss caused by excess middle ear fluid, alleviate speech and balance problems, and improve behavior and sleep problems caused by ear infections.
Ear tubes are highly effective in reducing chronic ear infections, though some children (approximately 25 percent) who receive them before the age of two may need them again.
Call Southeast Texas Ear, Nose & Throat, LLP at 409-212-8111 for more information or to schedule an appointment.