Runny Nose. Red ears. High fever. Tears of pain. For many parents, especially the parents of children under five years old, these symptoms immediately indicate an ear infection. These on-the-job trained, unofficial doctors recognize the symptoms from experience. It doesn’t take many sleepless nights of trying unsuccessfully to console a miserable toddler to make a parent feel qualified to be a doctor specializing in ear infections.
Speculation over the causes of otitis media does little to curb the leading cause of visits to medical practices and emergency rooms for small children. Doctors often downplay fevers as simply an indicator of the body battling illness. However, spiked fevers spike fear and concern in parents and misery in children. Technically ear infections occur when the eustachian tubes swell and trap fluid in the middle ear. The resulting pool of fluid (called effusion) behind the ear causes pain and pressure. Much like any other pooled liquid, it becomes a breeding ground for bacteria as time passes.
Allergies and colds initially trigger the swelling in the eustachian tubes, but exposure to cigarette smoke (or the residual fumes from clothing and hair) is another trigger. Recent studies have shown that some children with chronic ear infections have lower than normal amounts of vitamin D in their bodies. For those children, increased vitamin D can help reduce infections. Some doctors speculate the pneumonia vaccine may build immunities and fight infection.
Aside from the discomfort and fear (warranted or not) of fever, the pain from the fluid behind the ear makes it especially difficult to sleep. Some patients claim they feel their heart beating through the fluid. Elevating one end of the crib or bed can alleviate some of the throbbing. Gently massaging the area behind the ear along with the neck may also ease the hurting.
Another possible consequence of ear infections can be temporary or permanent hearing loss. For toddlers learning to speak, muffled sound can cause difficulty with speech. Children repeat what they hear; and if what they hear is distorted, then what they repeat may be as well.
Chronic ear infections usually result in chronic use of antibiotics. As a result, patients sometimes build up drug resistances which make ear infections harder to treat. A surgical alternative involves inserting drainage tubes which remove the fluid.
The rite of passage for small children may very well be the absence of ear infections. Episodes decrease dramatically after age six. One thing is for sure, life beyond ear infections is a cause for celebration.