Ear Infections in Children – Causes and Treatment

Ear infections frequently recur in young children and babies, and are one of the most common indications for prescription of antibiotic drugs. Three out of four children will suffer from ear infections (also called otitis media) before the age of 3, according to health officials.

What are the main symptoms of otitis media in children parents should look for?

1. Increased irritability and fussiness, especially during night time

2. Fever – most commonly just slightly higher than normal

3. Flu/cold symptoms – otitis media is generally followed by cold or other upper respiratory infections.

4. Ear pain or mild hearing loss

5. Discharge from the affected ear

6. Loss of sleep and appetite

Causes of ear infections in children

1. Immature Eustachian tubes: infections of the ear tend to be more common in children due to narrower Eustachian tubes (passages that connect the middle ear to the back of the throat). In children, these tubes are more susceptible to blockage, thus causing fluid buildup in the middle ear. Children’s Eustachian tubes are shorter and more horizontal in comparison to adults. This anatomic difference enables easier movement of bacteria from the throat.

2. Colds: colds or other upper respiratory infections cause swelling of the nose, which in turn, interrupts with fluid drainage. Bacteria and viruses may enter the ear and cause an infection, resulting in increased fluid in the ear, ear pain, fever and in several cases, hearing loss

3. Immature immune system- not fully developed; therefore children are more prone to infections.

4. Adenoids are larger in children and can interfere with the Eustachian tube’s opening, not allowing fluid to drain

Treating ear infections in children

Until recently, children suffering from otitis media were treated with prescribed antibiotics. However, new studies indicate that most infections of the ear clear out without the use of antibiotics. Over 50% of all infections are caused by viral infection, rendering antibiotics ineffective in these cases. It is important to note that unnecessary antibiotic treatment may cause bacterial resistance (some strains of bacteria have grown resistant to certain antibiotics), side effects and allergic responses. For this reason, most doctors are reluctant to prescribe antibiotics immediately after diagnosis, and prefer the “watchful waiting” approach. According to this approach, antibiotics are oversubscribed, raising worries regarding drug resistance and growing evidence that most ear infections in children heal by their own.