Maybe an earache is keeping you awake at night, or your child is showing signs of ear discomfort. Ear infections are unpleasant no matter your age. If you are wondering how this condition develops, or better yet, what you can do about it... I hear you! Now, let’s dive right in and find out.
How Ear Infections Develop
Ear infections are one of the most common reasons parents bring their child to a doctor. While adults can also get earaches and ear infections, they are far more common in kids. This is because children have a shorter, narrower, and somewhat horizontal eustachian tube (a tube that runs from the middle ear to the back of the throat that controls the pressure in the ear), making them prone to fluid accumulation, infection, and a blocked tube.
Put simply, a shorter eustachian tube means easier access and less travel time for microbes to “set up shop” within the ear. In addition, the awkward (more horizontal) positioning of children’s eustachian tube, and middle and inner ears that are still developing increase the likelihood of fluid getting trapped in the ear, which can lead to infection.
Think of fluid buildup as a host for a microscopic pool party, with a warm welcome for the proliferation of microbes. Yikes!
The Types of Ear Infections
There are two types of ear infections: otitis externa and otitis media.
- Otitis externa also known as swimmer’s ear, is the less common type of ear infection. Swimmer’s ear is an irritation or infection of the outer ear canal due to water that gets trapped in the ear (i.e. from swimming, bathing, or showering). The moist environment aids in the rapid growth of microbes, leading to infection. Symptoms of swimmer’s ear include itchiness and redness in the outer ear and ear canal, muffled hearing, and drainage from the ear. Treatments for this condition usually include either oral antibiotics or antibiotic ear drops.
- Otitis media also known as a middle ear infection, is the most common type of ear infection. It can occur due to a prior condition that kept fluids from being drained from the middle ear. In many cases, otitis media is a secondary infection that results from another illness. For instance, microbes from a cold, flu, or other upper respiratory illness can migrate to the middle ear, causing an ear infection.
Signs of ear infections in adults, or symptoms that an (unwelcome) “party” of microbes may be the culprit include: earache/pain in one or both ears, ear pressure, fluid in the ear, and reduced hearing. Children tend to experience a wider range of symptoms, including tugging or pulling at the ear, ear pain (worsened when lying down), difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, irritability/ crying more than usual, fever, and headache.
According to The American Academy of Pediatrics, middle ear infections are the most common infection for which antibiotics are prescribed to children in the United States. Generally, a 10-day prescription of antibiotics (Amoxicillin, in most cases) is used as a first-line treatment for otitis media. Another approach for a middle ear infection involves “watchful waiting.” This is a 48-72 hour period of observation to determine whether symptoms resolve on their own, or if antibiotics are necessary. During a follow-up visit after this period, the doctor determines whether or not antibiotics will be prescribed.
While antibiotics are commonly used for ear infections, the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) states that “antibiotics are often not needed for middle ear infections because the body’s immune system can fight off the infection on its own. However, sometimes antibiotics, such as amoxicillin, are needed to treat severe cases right away or cases that last longer than 2-3 days.”
As a side note, ear infections occur when viruses or bacteria migrate into the middle ear, so if the source of an infection is viral, there would be no benefit to taking antibiotics, as it wouldn’t have any effect on otitis media. In any case, since antibiotics are often not necessary to use in the treatment of otitis media, there are a variety of natural, safe remedies to support healing and relieve ear pain.
Here are some DIY ideas for you:
- Apply a warm compress to soothe discomfort, or try a cool compress for its numbing effect.
- Prop your head up with pillows to allow fluid to drain from the ears.
- Modify your sleeping position by sleeping on the opposite side of the infected ear to reduce pressure(which can be the culprit behind earaches and pain).
- Last, but certainly not least: Try some natural ear drops.
Now, what about preventing an ear infection? As the Benjamin Franklin axiom goes, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” While Franklin said these wise words in 1736, it is just as pertinent today. Before you panic (or start getting excited if you’re an avid history-lover), this is not about to turn into a history class. Okay, now veering back to the actual point: When it comes to ear infections, prevention is key! Since children are more likely than adults to get an ear infection, preventative steps for this population is essential.
Here are some ways to help your young child or infant avoid an ear infection:
- Keep children away from secondhand smoke. Exposure to cigarette smoke can irritate the eustachian tubes of young children and infants, increasing the risk of swelling and blockage.
- Breastfeed. Breastfeeding your baby for at least six months can be protective, as breast milk contains antibodies that can help guard your baby from ear infections.
- Hold your child upright during bottle-feeding. Remember, a child’s eustachian tube is somewhat horizontal. To help avoid fluid buildup in the ear, make sure to hold your child at a more vertical angle during feeding.
- Teach children hygienic practices. Help kids avoid illness in the first place, such as the cold, flu, or upper respiratory illness, as these illnesses may cause otitis media as a secondary infection. Teach children to sneeze inside their elbow, wash their hands, & not eat from other children’s plates.
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