Ear infections are one of the most common types of bacterial infections pediatricians see, so chances are every child will have one at some point. 

What causes an ear infection?

Infections occur in the middle ear portion of the ear. The eustachian tube, which connects the throat to the ear, is lined with the same type of skin as the nose or the throat. So allergies, colds, any irritation that would affect those areas, can also affect the eustachian tube, causing the skin in the tube to swell. 

That swelling leads to a blockage of the tube, creating a vacuum in the ear, which allows for fluid to build in the middle ear. Fluid in the middle ear causes the ear drum to stretch, which is what causes pain with ear infections. 

How do you know it’s an ear infection?

Typically, ear infections occur with a runny nose or cough, like with allergies or a cold. That mucus build-up and irritation causes the eustachian tube to swell, causing the infection of the ear. It is very unusual to get an ear infection without a runny nose or cough, but there are other causes in addition to the eustachian tube swelling, including:

  • Tympanic membrane
  • Throat
  • Tonsils
  • Tongue

Any of those can get irritated and/or cause ear pain. 

How is an ear infection treated?

Ear infections are caused by viruses and bacteria, and it’s the doctor’s job to determine which is causing the pain. The physician will review the child’s history, look at each ear and decide on the best course of treatment, which is typically a 10-day course of antibiotics if the ear infection is bacterial. 

The antibiotic prescribed will be chosen by the doctor after a review of the patient’s medical history, including past antibiotics taken and possible bacterial resistance.

If the ear infection is caused by a virus, the doctor will likely offer treatment for pain, as antibiotics do not help with a viral infection. 

What causes repeat ear infections?

There are a few causes of ear infections that occur over and over, including:

  • Chronic allergies
  • A child’s age, as children have small eustachian tubes, which can swell and get blocked easily 
  • Being around cigarette smoke, as the smoke causes the hair which naturally clears the ear, nose and throat to stop working, increasing the risk of infections in those areas.

How are chronic ear infections treated?

Chronic ear infections are something to discuss with a physician, because repeat infections can affect a child’s hearing and language development skills. 

If a child experiences repeat ear infections, the doctor may recommend surgery, where small tubes are placed in the ear drums, allowing the fluid to drain and keep the pressure out of the middle ear. 

Tubes typically last anywhere from two months to two years, with the average being around six months. The hope is that the tube prevents ear infections while the child continues to grow, allowing the eustachian tube to grow larger and hopefully preventing future ear infections from occurring, even after the tubes fall out. 

Bottom line for parents to remember: Ear infections are common and very treatable. If your child has had a runny nose, cough or fever, and seems to be exhibiting signs of ear pain, visit with your pediatrician about possible treatment.


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