Ear infections in kids

November 11th, 2019
A young boy has his ear examined.
The most common symptoms of an ear infection include irritability, poor sleep, nasal congestion, nasal drainage, ear tugging and a low-grade fever. Photo by Getty Images.

With winter fast approaching, parents of young children are likely girding up for the dreaded ear infection.

“We’re entering the season,” said Dr. Jason Sigmon, an otolaryngologist at UCHealth Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “There’s a higher incidence of ear infections during fall and winter months, due to the increase in upper respiratory and nasal infections.”

Below, Dr. Sigmon outlines what you need to know about ear infections in children.

Why ear infections happen

Children, especially those under the age of three, tend to accumulate fluid underneath their eardrums. That moist environment creates prime conditions for a virus or bacteria to take hold.

“The virus or bacteria gets to the ear from the nose, which is why most children who have ear infections will have some associated nasal symptoms,” Sigmon said. “Adults aren’t as susceptible in part because our sinus and nasal infections usually stay in our sinuses and nose.”

Who is at risk

“The biggest risk factor is age,” Sigmon said. “As kids get older, risk of ear infections decreases.”

This is a photo of Dr. Jason Sigmon.
Dr. Jason Sigmon is an otolaryngologist at UCHealth Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic in Steamboat Springs. Photo courtesy of UCHealth.

There are not any known, clear genetic links to increased risk of ear infections, and there aren’t recognized preventative measures that can stop an ear infection from taking hold.

Don’t be surprised if children develop more upper respiratory and nasal illnesses when entering a daycare or school setting for the first time.

“That’s very normal, and is necessary for their immune systems,” Sigmon said. “It doesn’t mean a child is going to develop chronic ear infections.”

Diagnosis and treatment

The most common symptoms of an ear infection include irritability, poor sleep, nasal congestion, nasal drainage, ear tugging and a low-grade fever.

“If a child has persistent symptoms that last more than 72 hours, or symptoms that worsen, they should be seen by their pediatrician or family medicine doctor,” Sigmon said. “It’s really important to have that regular relationship with a primary care provider. They’re well versed in how to treat and monitor your child’s ear infections.”

Ear infections are typically treated with oral antibiotics, as well as ibuprofen or acetaminophen to help relieve pain.

It’s important to get ear infections addressed quickly, not just to help relieve your child’s discomfort.

“In rare cases, chronic ear infections that aren’t diagnosed can result in some speech and language delays, and even some hearing loss,” Sigmon said. “But most hearing loss associated with chronic ear infections is reversible once infections have been treated medically or with placement of ear tubes.”

What about ear tubes?

If ear infections become chronic, a child may be referred to a specialist like Sigmon, who may consider putting in ear tubes.

“We typically put in ear tubes only after the pediatricians and family medicine doctors have exhausted all methods of managing those infections,” Sigmon said.

The tiny plastic tubes help prevent the buildup of fluid, which staves off ear infections.

“Ear tubes equalize pressure across the eardrum and prevent fluid from accumulating underneath the eardrum, as that fluid is a reservoir for recurrent infections,” Sigmon said. “Placing a tube helps break the cycle of recurring ear infections.”

A child is typically sedated for the quick procedure. Then, a small incision is made in his or her eardrum, and the tube is inserted.

“It’s a very quick procedure,” Sigmon said. “And it’s very successful, without a lot of side effects.”

Tubes typically come out on their own over time, and most children just need one set. “Most of the time, as children get older, they outgrow their need for tubes,” Sigmon said.

 

This article first appeared in the Steamboat Pilot & Today on Nov. 4, 2019.

About the author

Susan Cunningham lives in the Colorado Rocky Mountains with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys science nearly as much as writing: she’s traveled to the bottom of the ocean via submarine to observe life at hydrothermal vents, camped out on an island of birds to study tern behavior, and now spends time in an office writing and analyzing data. She blogs about writing and science at susancunninghambooks.com.