Though not confined exclusively to children, the majority of ear infections do affect the pediatric population. Other than wellness checkups, ear infections are the most common reason children see the doctor. There’s a reason for this:

The Eustachian tube, responsible for draining fluid from the middle ear, frequently becomes swollen in children, causing fluid to accumulate and lead to infection.

The most common type of ear infection affects the middle ear, and is called otitis media.

What Causes Ear Infections?

Ear Infections

Otitis media occurs when fluid builds up in the middle ear as a result of a blockage in the Eustachian tube. This can result from a number of causes including allergies, colds, sinus or upper respiratory tract infections, enlarged adenoids and tonsils, tobacco smoke and more. Ear infections can be acute (lasting a short duration) or chronic (long-lasting or recurring). Children most at risk for developing ear infections attend daycare, are bottle fed, live in colder climates, are exposed to cigarette smoke, rely on pacifiers, and are not up to date on vaccinations.

Infants are unable to vocalize the source of their discomfort, so you might not always be aware when they are suffering from an ear infection. Look for increased irritability and crying. Your baby may refuse to eat, have trouble sleeping and develop a fever.

In older children and adults, symptoms include earache, fullness in the ear, nausea, vomiting, dizziness, diarrhea and hearing loss.

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How Are Ear Infections Treated?

Because ear infections are so common and usually clear up after a few days, many doctors advise against immediate treatment other than home remedies for pain relief. A warm washcloth pressed against the ear makes for an effective compress, and can be used in conjunction with over-the-counter pain medication and eardrops. Just be sure to avoid giving your child aspirin, which can cause Reye’s syndrome – a deadly condition of the brain and liver – in young children.

If ear infections don’t clear up on their own, they are usually treated with antibiotics. Chronic cases may require a more aggressive approach. If your child suffers from frequent infections, he or she may be given ear tubes to help promote fluid drainage and improve ventilation. In some cases, surgery to remove the tonsils or adenoids may be recommended.