If you have kids – no matter what their age – you’re bound to encounter an ear ailment sooner or later. Here are some common ones and what you need to know to get through them.
I remember it like it was yesterday. My 6-month-old son was screaming – a fever, rosy cheeks, runny nose and pained ears that he couldn’t quit pulling on. As a new mom, I started freaking out, unsure of what was ailing my baby. I quickly made an appointment with his pediatrician and subsequently got my first lesson in ear infections and the “pink stuff” commonly prescribed to treat them.
While ear problems are typically thought to afflict only babies and toddlers, there are several ear ailments that can occur in kids of all ages. Here are the common ones, what causes them and how to treat them.
OTITIS MEDIA (OM)
Causes: Otitis media, the mother of all ear infections, is an “inflammation and infection of the middle ear most often due to a recent upper respiratory tract infection or enlarged adenoids,” says Frank Haraf, M.D. of Green Hills Children’s Clinic. Otitis media can occur at any age, but is most common in children younger than 6. It usually occurs in the winter and early spring months and develops, says Haraf, “when there is inflammation of the middle ear that prevents the eustachian tube’s ability to properly drain.” The bacteria and viruses create a fluid buildup behind the eardrum and consequently an infection with an earache and swelling.
Symptoms: Haraf advises to be suspicious of otitis media when symptoms like ear pain, fever, discomfort and decreased hearing are present. In babies and toddlers, things to look for may also include fussiness, vomiting and ear drainage. In children and adults, symptoms may include pressure or a feeling of fullness in the ear, dizziness or loss of balance, fever, ear drainage and nausea or vomiting.
Treatment: “Although most people associate OM with needing antibiotic treatment,” says Haraf, “some infections are viral – not bacterial – and do not require intervention, only symptomatic treatment.”
If you recognize the symptoms and suspect an ear infection, make an appointment with your pediatrician who will examine the ear with an otoscope. The doctor will look for redness and swelling of the eardrum and the presence of pus. If found, the doctor may prescribe an antibiotic to kill the infection and may also recommend an antihistamine, decongestant, pain reliever or numbing ear drops to aid in the pain maintenance.
In severe cases or if the child has chronic ear infections, tubes may be inserted into the ears to help drain fluid when buildup is present (see “Let’s Talk Tubes” at right). If the infections are continually caused by infected adenoids (the spongy tissue in the back of the nose above the roof of the mouth) and tonsils, these may be surgically removed when the child gets older.
What you need to know:
Otitis media is generally not serious if it is treated promptly and effectively. Otitis media is not contagious, but the illness causing it may be.
OTITIS EXTERNAL (OE) – (Swimmer’s Ear)
Causes: Most commonly a result of swimming, otitis external occurs when there is “a loss of or compromise in the waxy coating that protects the ear canal,” says Haraf. “Without the protective coating, the canal is susceptible to bacterial infection.” OE can also be caused by eczema in or scratching of the ear or trauma caused by insertion of foreign objects (such as Q-tips) in the ear.
Symptoms: For anyone who’s ever had OE, you know that the most prevalent symptom is the excruciating pain you have whenever the ear is touched or moved. Additional symptoms may include a feeling of fullness in the ear, pain when chewing or, when the inflammation is severe, muffled hearing.
Treatment: Treatment usually begins with a trip to the doctor, who will first remove infected debris from the ear with either suction or a cotton swab. An ear drop comprised of an antibiotic and steroid may be prescribed to treat the infection, swelling and pain. Pain relievers can be used, too.
To prevent OE, Haraf recommends using a solution made of one part rubbing alcohol to one part vinegar. Apply one teaspoon by dropper into the ear canal for one minute after prolonged swimming or bathing.
What you need to know: Fever is generally not a symptom of OE, nor is it contagious.
TYMPANIC MEMBRANE PERFORATION (Ruptured or Perforated Eardrum)
Causes: Perforated eardrums can be caused due to severe infection or trauma to the eardrum.
Symptoms: According to the United States Library of Medicine and the National Institutes of Health, symptoms can include, “earache and discomfort, which may be severe and increasing, and a sudden decrease in pain may be followed by ear drainage, hearing loss in the affected ear and ear noise or buzzing.”
Treatment: After the eardrum is perforated, or torn, it will typically heal itself like any other cut within about two months. However, it is advised to have a physician follow the situation for about a month to ensure it’s healing properly. While it’s healing, pain relievers and a warm compress may be used to help control the pain. Cotton balls should be gently placed in the ear while showering to prevent water from getting in.
What you need to know: Any hearing loss is usually temporary.
The most important thing to remember whenever you’re dealing with ears is to take care of them by never inserting foreign objects into the ear canal, and if an ear infection is suspected, visit the doctor right away. Take care of your ears, and they’ll last you a lifetime.
Ashley Driggs is senior editor for this publication.
LET’S TALK TUBES:
If a child has recurrent ear infections that fail to respond to several courses of antibiotics, or if there’s suspicion of hearing loss or speech delay, your pediatrician may suggest “tubes.” What does this mean? Essentially, tiny tubes, called pressure equalization tubes, are surgically inserted into the eardrum to assist in fluid drainage and equalization.
Rutherford County mom Shawna Daniel’s 3-year-old daughter Karsen was 3 months old when she got her first ear infection. “After 11 months of pretty much constant ear infections, we finally decided to get tubes put in,” says Daniel. Karsen was 15 months old when she went in for the outpatient surgery. They arrived early in the morning for surgery preparation. “They gave her something to relax and 20 minutes later, the nurses came in to get her,” recalls Daniel.
The surgeon reaches the eardrum through the ear cana eliminating the need to cut the skin. Once there, he makes a tiny hole in the eardrum. He then uses suction to remove any fluid before inserting a small metal or plastic tube, about one to two millimeters in diameter, in the eardrum.
“I went to the bathroom to dry my eyes from crying, and when I came out, the doctor was there saying everything went great!” The surgery only took about 15 minutes, and within two hours, Karsen was at home resting.
Since the surgery two years ago, Karsen has only had one ear infection, which cleared up in a week. And, she only has to wear earplugs if she’s swimming in a lake or ocean – swimming in chlorinated water doesn’t require them.
The tubes can stay in the ear anywhere from six months to two years, and they’ll usually fall out on their own as the eardrum heals. If they haven’t fallen out after two years, they should be surgically removed to avoid tissue buildup around the tube.
While tubes are considerably effective in reducing the recurrence of ear infections, they are not a one-time quick fix. In fact, up to 25 percent of children who need tubes before age 2 may need them again.