Release Date: 12/1/2011
Ear infections in children are common, painful, seldom serious
Dana Galbraith, M.D., Family Medicine Specialist, St. Anthony's Medical Center
It’s a question every parent ponders – when your child has an ear infection, why does his fever and pain increase exponentially as the daylight hours wane? At 10 a.m., he’s playing with toy trucks; at 6 p.m., he’s building a tower of blocks. At midnight, he’s holding his ear and screaming with pain.
That pain is due to acute otitis media, the medical term for middle ear infection, which strikes an estimated 75 percent of children at least once by the age of three. Ear infections are the most common illnesses experienced by babies and young children.
An ear infection is caused by a bacterium or virus in the middle ear, often resulting from a cold or allergy. It results in congestion and swelling of the nasal passages, throat and Eustachian tubes. Ear infections are often painful because of inflammation and build-up of fluids in the middle ear.
The onset of symptoms is usually rapid, and may include tugging at the ear, crying more than usual, experiencing difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, irritability, headache, vomiting, diarrhea and fever of 100 degrees or higher. Your child also may experience loss of balance and difficulty hearing or responding to sounds.
There are some measures you can take to help prevent ear infections.
- Insist your child wear a warm coat and hat when playing outside in the cold. Cold temperatures don’t cause ear infections, but prolonged exposure to cold temperatures can weaken his immune system.
- Don’t smoke. Indoor air pollutants such as tobacco smoke cause chronic irritation of the mucus membranes.
- Promote good hand-washing habits to help prevent colds.
As a parent, you just want to make your child’s pain go away – quickly. You’re looking for a magic pill to make him all better. That pill used to come in the form of antibiotics – today, that’s not always true. Antibiotics are effective only against bacteria; and medical experts believe some 25 percent of ear infections are viral in nature.
Due to a growing problem of antibiotic-resistant infections, doctors today are more cautious about prescribing antibiotics without clear evidence of the presence of bacteria. Even bacterial ear infections clear up on their own, 75 to 80 percent of the time, without serious consequences. On the other hand, ear infections that continue for a long period of time can cause permanent hearing loss. If your child isn’t better after a few days, call your doctor.
To help relieve the pain of an ear infection, some simple home remedies may help. Pain relievers, such as Children’s Tylenol, will help your child feel better. Applying heat to the ear may help ease the pain, and rest will help his body fight off the infection. Do not use eardrops, decongestants or other over-the-counter cold remedies without a doctor’s advice.
The good news is, health officials report that while cases skyrocketed from 1975 to 1990, they declined nearly 30 percent over the next 15 years. Harvard researchers believe part of the reason is the declining number of people who smoke in their homes, meaning less irritation of children’s airways. Many doctors credit the growing use of a vaccine against bacteria that cause infections. Others suggest that, with 77 percent of new mothers today breast-feeding their babies, anti-body-rich breast milk may be protecting more children.
Whatever the reason, moms and dads everywhere rejoice in even the smallest decline in the number of cases of this childhood scourge. Because no parents want to see their babies crying in pain – not at 10 a.m., not at 7 p.m. and certainly not at midnight.
Dr. Dana Galbraith, a Family Medicine specialist, is a member of St. Anthony’s Physician Organization. She practices at St. Anthony’s Family Health Partners, at 59 Grasso Plaza in Affton. Call 314-543-5258 for an appointment. For a referral to any St. Anthony’s physician, call 314-ANTHONY (268-4669) or 1-800-554-9550.
For information, please call our Health Access Line at 314-ANTHONY (268-4669) or 800-554-9550 or visit find a physician online.
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