Ask any pediatrician which type of after hours call they handle most frequently, and the answer is likely to be otitis media, the medical term for a middle ear infection. Aside from the common cold, ear infections are the most commonly diagnosed childhood illness, affecting three out of four children by the time they reach the age of three.
Ear infections occur when fluid fills the space between the eardrum and inner ear. Children are especially vulnerable because the Eustachian tube, responsible for draining fluid and equalizing pressure, is less developed in young children, and is prone to blockages and swelling when mucus and other fluids back up in the middle ear. This puts pressure on the eardrum and leads to a painful infection.
An increase in irritability is often the first sign of an ear infection. Your child may cry inconsolably and/or pull on the affected ear. Symptoms include a painful earache that worsens when lying down, fluid discharge, difficulty hearing, trouble sleeping, headache, fever, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and lack of appetite. If your child displays these symptoms, you should contact your pediatrician for their recommendations for soothing, and/or monitoring/resolving the ear infection.
An ear infection is usually diagnosed after an examination of the ears using an otoscope. If they are dull, red, and contain fluid or pus, the ear is probably infected.
The most common treatment for pediatric otitis media is antibiotics, which kill off the bacteria responsible for the child’s symptoms. Chronic infections require a more serious long-term solution which may include ear tubes, which promote drainage of fluids and prevents future infections from occurring. Most are removed in a year or two, and may fall out naturally.
Many children with chronic ear infections also present with delays in language skills, speech sound production, or if unresolved later difficulties with auditory processing. If you have concerns regarding your child’s hearing, or the possibility of an ear infection, reach out to your pediatrician, or speak with your audiologist/SLP for more information.