Ear infections defined

Ear infections are a very common complaint in young children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years because the tubes between the middle ear and the throat (Eustachian tubes) are short, narrow and horizontal making drainage poor.

They are easily blocked leading to middle ear infections.  Infection in the outer ear canal, called otitis externa, can also cause inflammation, pain and discharge from the ear and itchiness.

Outer-ear infection

The passage leading to the eardrum from the ear flap can become infected.  This may be the result of swimming in chlorinated water or excessive cleaning and scratching.  Children with eczema are especially prone to such infections if they get water in their ears.

Middle-ear infection

The cavity behind the ear drum becomes infected or inflamed.  This is often caused by bacteria entering the middle ear from the nose and throat via the Eustachian tube.  This tube is narrow and short allowing infection to spread easily usually only affecting one ear. If left untreated, middle ear infections can result in permanent hearing loss.  Avoid getting water in the ear until the infection has cleared up.

Glue ear

Repeated middle ear infections can lead to glue ear which is an accumulation of sticky jelly-like fluid in the middle ear.  The doctor may decide on a small operation under anesthetic to insert grommets.

What are grommets?

A grommet is a tiny plastic tube which is implanted in the ear drum to equalize air pressure on either side of the ear drum and to allow the ear to dry out.  These are not uncomfortable and will not affect your child’s hearing in any way.  Unfortunately he must not go swimming while they are in place.  After a few months, they will fall out and the tiny holes will heal.

Symptoms of ear infection

The following may be warning signs of ear infection in infants and toddlers:

  • Pulling or scratching at the ear
  • Discharge from the ear
  • Irritability and crying
  • Temperature
  • Restless sleep

Older children may also complain of:

  • Pain in one or both of the ears
  • Itching of the ears
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Nausea

Glossary:

Ear drum vibrates in response to sound waves.

Middle ear cavity contains three tiny bones which transmit sound signals to the inner ear.

Inner ear contains the mechanisms for hearing and balance.

Auditory nerve takes sound signals to the brain.

Eustachian tube leads to the back of the throat.  It is much shorter in children than in adults, causing infection to spread easily.

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