Middle ear infection—also referred to as otitis media—is a common ailment of children and often occurs before the age of three. While an ear infection typically causes concern for parents of toddlers, the illness usually subsides in a couple days and children will stop having infections by the time they’re five years old.
Middle ear infection develops behind the eardrum and normally follows a cold or the flu. It can take the form of three types of infection. If the infection is temporary but happens suddenly, then the infection is referred to as acute otitis media. Recurrent acute otitis media is a medical term for a middle ear infection that returns on a seemingly regular basis. A more severe case of middle ear infection is chronic otitis media with effusion or OME. This kind of infection isn’t painful but is called “glue ear” as a sticky liquid or effusion accumulates in the middle ear.
To understand a little more about how middle ear infection occurs, it’s helpful to know something about the ear itself. The ear is divided into three segments, or the outer, middle and inner ear. The middle part is divided from the outer ear by the eardrum and contains three tiny bones essential to the function of hearing called the stirrup, anvil and hammer.
When the eardrum vibrates in response to sound, it causes the tiny bones in the middle ear to vibrate. These vibrations travel across the inner ear causing fluid to move into the inner ear at the same time. As a result the nerves respond by signaling the brain and one is able to hear.
The Eustachian tubes link the middle ear to the back of the throat and adjust or balance the pressure on either side of the eardrum. The tubes also guard the middle ear from any germs that might gain entry into the throat and permit drainage from the middle ear into the throat.
Before a child suffers from a middle ear infection, he usually, as previously mentioned, suffers from the flu or shows the signs of a cold along with a slight fever, sore throat and, in some instances, a cough.
Infants who have middle ear infections are normally feverish, restless and will pull on their ear. If your child is a toddler or older, he may complain of an earache. Yellowish fluid will drain from the ear and appear on your child’s pillow if the eardrum has ruptured. If this is the case, the eardrum usually heals in time and the pain of infection is reduced as the build-up of liquid is no longer a problem.
Middle ear infections are a result of exposure to germs or viruses. Children are more susceptible to middle ear infections in homes where there is secondhand smoke or if they attend a daycare facility on a regular basis. Also, if your child suffers from middle ear infection at an earlier age, it’s more likely he’ll have several middle ear infections before he’s four or five years old.
To treat middle ear infection, a doctor will factor in the severity of the problem as well as how long the infection has lasted.
Ear drops are often helpful in reducing ear pain and pressure and can be administered by placing your child on his side with the infected ear side up to receive the medicine. Do not administer any ear drops though if fluid is leaking from the ear. Also, cold or allergy medications can be helpful in minimizing the cold symptoms that accompany ear infections although they’re of little benefit in clearing up the infection itself.
Vaccines have been proven to be advantageous for ear infections that return repeatedly. By inoculating your child against the flu, you can minimize the occurrence of middle ear infection too. Other treatments for minimizing pain include pain medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Using a heating pad on a low setting can also soothe the ear. Just make sure your child doesn’t fall asleep while using a heating pad in order to avoid burns.
If your child has the symptoms of an infection, you should wait a couple days to see if it subsides. If no improvement is noted, then the use of any of the aforementioned treatments, antibiotics or surgery may be indicated.
As much as half of the middle ear infections in children are caused by viruses; therefore, antibiotics will not help unless the infection is the result of bacterial causes. In the majority of cases, antibiotics are taken for duration of ten days and are administered in tablet, capsule or liquid form.
If a child doesn’t respond to antibiotic treatment, a procedure called a tympanocentesis may be needed. In this procedure, the doctor collects fluid behind the eardrum with a needle to determine what type of bacteria is causing the infection so he can devise a plan of treatment.
In some cases, the doctor may suggest a procedure called a myringotomy be done to drain fluid from the ear so the eardrum doesn’t rupture. In this procedure, a small incision is made in the eardrum to drain excess fluid. Healing time for the eardrum takes approximately seven days.
For chronic cases of middle ear infection, a surgery called a typanostomy may be recommended. Also called ear tube surgery, in a typanostomy, the surgeon makes a small incision in the eardrum to remove the accumulated fluid and places a tube made of plastic or metal into the incision to drain and remove the remaining fluid and bacteria. The tube falls out on its own as the eardrum heals from the surgery. The procedure has been proven to be helpful in reducing the recurrence of infection.
A new procedure using laser treatment called an OtoLAM can be conveniently performed in a physician’s office. A laser makes a small hole in the eardrum to allow for drainage. No general anesthetic is required as ear drops are used to numb the area. Because the ear is drained and ear pressure is reduced, the associated pain is also relieved. This kind of procedure reduces the need for antibiotic therapy as a treatment cure.
Middle ear infection can cause a great deal of discomfort for children under three years old but thankfully it’s an illness that can be treated in a number of ways with success.