Ear infections are an inflammation of the middle ear, eardrum and ear canal. Ear infections affect children more than adults. Pressure changes in the ear can cause pain, but a persistent earache may signal an infection.
Ear infections normally start with a viral infection, with the lining of the middle ear becoming swollen and fluid building up behind the eardrum. Fluid can also become trapped in the eustachian tubes, the passageways that connect the middle ear and the nose. Children’s eustachian tubes are shorter than adults', and that puts them at higher risk for ear infections. A bacterial infection of the ear can come from contaminated beaches or pools.
Symptoms of ear infections include ear pain, ringing in the ear, hearing loss, a full feeling in the ear, nausea and vertigo. Children who are too young to tell you their ear hurts might exhibit symptoms such as tugging or pulling their ears, trouble sleeping, unusual irritability, fever of 100 F or higher and clear fluid draining from ears.
Your doctor will examine the inside of your ear to look for any inflammation. He may use an instrument called a pneumatic otoscope that blows a puff of air into your ear. The puff of air will normally move the eardrum unless the middle ear is filled with fluid. A test called tympanometry measures eardrum movement by inserting a soft plug into the ear.
Some ear infections will clear up on their own, so your doctor may want to take a wait-and-see approach for 72 hours before prescribing antibiotics. Antibiotics will not help an ear infection caused by a virus. Over the counter medications such as Tylenol or Motrin can help alleviate ear pain. Antibiotics such as amoxicillin are prescribed for bacterial infections of the ear.
When your child has recurrent ear infections or ear infections that do not respond to treatment, the doctor may recommend placement of drainage tubes in the ears. The procedure requires general anesthesia, and the surgeon inserts a tube into your child’s eardrum. The tube drains fluid and equalizes pressure in the middle and outer ear. Earplugs should be worn when taking a bath or playing in the pool to keep water out of their ears. As the child grows, the tubes will eventually fall out, and the drainage holes will heal on their own.
To sooth an earache, use warm compresses placed over the affected ear. For small children with an earache, try distracting them by reading books aloud or playing board games. A monitor called EarCheck checks the fluid in your child’s ears. The probe of the monitor is placed in your child’s ear and the monitor emits several chirping noises which that off the membranes in your child’s ear. The reading on the monitor tells you if the fluid level is too high and if you should see a doctor.