Ear infections can cause pain and discomfort in people of all ages, especially young children. Richard Samuel, MD, medical director for Adventist HealthCare Urgent Care, answers common questions about ear infections.

Q – What is an ear infection?

Dr. Samuel – An ear infection, also called otitis media, is an inflammation of the middle ear, generally caused by bacteria build-up behind the eardrum. The condition usually occurs when fluid collects behind the eardrum. Other times it can develop after a virus or infection runs its course but leaves bacteria trapped in the middle ear.  Common symptoms include ear pain, a sensation that the ear is filled with fluid, hearing loss and flu-like symptoms. Ear infections can occur once or turn into a chronic issue.

Q – Why are ear infections more common in children?

Dr. Samuel – Children are more likely to get ear infections because of their anatomy and immune system. The tubes connecting the throat to the middle ear is smaller and more direct in children making it easier for fluid to build up and become infected. Also, a child’s immune system is not as developed, making it harder to fight off an infection. It’s normal for a child to get several ear infections, especially between six months and three years of age. Because they are common in children who cannot talk yet, common signs for parents to watch for are:

  • Fluid draining from the ears
  • Has issues hearing and responding to quiet sounds
  • Crying even after being soothed
  • Fever
  • Pulling or tugging at ears

Q – How can I prevent ear infections?

Dr. Samuel – Preventing an ear infection is just like preventing the flu or other contagious illness. Follow these tips:

  • Encourage frequent hand washing
  • Disinfect common household surfaces such as doorknobs and cell phones
  • If possible, avoid other sick children and if you or your child are sick, stay home so the illness doesn’t spread
  • Get your flu shot
  • Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Don’t put your baby to sleep with a bottle
  • Do not use cotton swabs in your ear

Q – How can I treat an ear infection?

Dr. Samuel – Sometimes an ear infection will clear up on its own, but more severe cases may require treatment with antibiotics. Other common treatments are over-the-counter pain relievers to help relieve ear pain and lower fevers. Applying a warm cloth to the affected ear can also help relieve ear pain. Always talk with your doctor or pediatrician if you start to experience ear pain, develop a fever or notice any drainage from the ears. 

Sources: National Institutes of Health, U.S. National Library of Medicine

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