Most children will develop a middle ear infection, also known as otitis media, at some point during their early years. Most incidences occur between the ages of six months and three years, while a second peak period occurs between the ages of four and six.
How middle ear infections develop in children
Middle ear infections occur in the air-filled space between the eardrum and inner ear. When fluid builds up in the area and becomes infected by bacteria or a virus (possibly from a cold, sore throat, or other respiratory infections), inflammation occurs and causes pain, redness of the eardrum and, in some cases, fever.
Children are more prone to developing middle ear infections than adults for anatomical and immunological reasons. The Eustachian tube, which links the throat to the middle ear, is more likely to become blocked in children because they are shorter and more horizontal than in an adult ear. In addition, a child’s immune system is still developing which means that they are less able to fight off germs and infections.
Main types of ear infections
There are three main types of middle ear infections, each with varying symptoms:
– Otitis Media/Acute Otitis media (AOM): The most common ear infection in children where the middle ear becomes infected and swollen with trapped fluid behind the eardrum.
– Otitis media with effusion (OME): This happens when the infection may have gone but the fluid is still trapped behind the eardrum. Children with OME may not have symptoms, but the fluid may block sound.
– Chronic otitis media with effusion (COME): This is characterized by fluid remaining in a child’s middle ear for a long time or is recurrent (even if there is no infection). COME may make it harder for children to fight new infections and it may cause hearing loss because the fluid interferes with effective motion of the eardrum and hearing bones.
While many children may not be able to tell you how they are feeling, common symptoms include:
– Increased irritability or crying
– Difficulties sleeping
– Diminished appetite or vomiting
– Trouble hearing or responding to sounds
– Fluid or pus draining from your child’s ear
Ear infections may be managed in different ways, depending on the age of your child, type and duration of symptoms, and overall medical history.
In some cases, physicians may recommend a wait-and-see approach as the ear infection may clear up on its own without specific treatment. A doctor may prescribe pain relief medications or antibiotics if the cause of the ear infection is bacterial. If the use of medications is advised, it is essential that your child takes the medicine as prescribed and finishes the course of treatment.
If, after treatment, symptoms persist and your child is still sick, speak to your child’s doctor as your child may require additional treatment.