You know the signs…your child is fussy, sleepless, running a fever, and possibly tugging at their ears. Another ear infection! So why does your child keep getting these infections? And what can be done to stop the cycle?
Understanding Ear Infections
Let’s back up and discuss what ear infections are. For starters, there are different kinds of ear infections.
● Swimmer’s Ear (outer ear). This infection affects the outer ear—the part that is visible when you look at the ear. This infection develops when moisture (as from a swimming pool) builds up, creating a damp environment that invites bacteria growth.
This condition can be prevented by tipping your ear to one side when you get out of the pool to allow the water to drain naturally. You should avoid pushing things into the ear to get the water out as this can exacerbate discomfort and infection. Prescription ear drops can help alleviate swimmer’s ear.
● Otitis Media (middle ear). These middle ear infections are very common and occur in the area behind the eardrum where you find the vibrating bones of the ear that facilitate hearing.
Also found in the middle ear are tiny tubes called eustachian tubes that connect to the back of the throat. These tubes open and release to keep air flowing into the middle ear, keep the air pressure in the ear balanced, and drain secretions that come from the middle ear into the throat.
Problems develop when the eustachian tubes become inflamed due to illness or allergy. When this happens, the secretions get trapped in the middle ear. The resulting dark, moist environment is an open invitation for bacteria to flourish, causing painful ear infections.
What Causes Recurring Ear Infections?
Middle ear infections are particularly common in children between ages 2 and 4. Their eustachian tubes are shorter, more narrow, and sit at less of a slope. All of this increases the chance of fluids building up in the middle ear rather than draining properly.
No parent should be surprised if their toddler has an occasional ear infection–especially if they’ve recently had a virus. Viruses can increase inflammation of the ear and mucus production and keep those eustachian tubes from draining well.
If those ear infections occur routinely, however, either out of the blue or as a result of seemingly every virus that comes along, allergies may be the culprit.
How do Allergies Contribute to Ear Infections?
Whether your child is allergic to pollen, mold, pet dander, dust, or even food, the body can react with excessive mucus production and inflammation. Normally, the cavity of the middle ear is filled with air, but when the eustachian tubes are inflamed and can’t drain right, that mucus will stay in the inner ear and create a breeding ground for bacteria that leads to one ear infection after another.
How do I Know if It’s Really an Ear Infection?
Watch for these symptoms of ear infections in children:
- Crying, especially when lying down at night
- Trouble sleeping
- Ear pain (often manifest by tugging at the ear)
- Appetite loss
- Ear drainage
Don’t expect that your child will have all of these symptoms—they may just have one or two. Be mindful that ear infections frequently follow illness so if your child has recently had a cold, they may be at a greater risk for ear infections.
If your child’s symptoms seem to point to an ear infection, contact your doctor. They can look in your child’s ear with an otoscope and look for signs of infection. This, along with a consideration of the nature, duration and intensity of their symptoms may lead your provider to prescribe antibiotics for an ear infection along with medications like ibuprofen or acetaminophen. (Avoid aspirin as it has been linked to Reyes syndrome in children.)
What are the Risk Factors for Recurring Ear Infections?
Besides being painful for kids, recurring ear infections can leave lasting marks on their health. If their eustachian tubes aren’t draining well, the doctor may need to surgically implement ear tubes to help with drainage.
When the middle ear is filled with fluid, it can affect hearing. You may notice that your child isn’t hearing as well when they have an ear infection. Thankfully, most hearing loss from ear infections is temporary and will improve along with the ear infection. However, recurring ear infections can cause lasting damage in the inner ear that leads to permanently compromised hearing. And when kids can’t hear, their speech can be affected, too.
Help for Recurring Ear Infections
If your child is getting ear infections regularly, it’s probably not just a coincidence. There is likely an underlying problem, and if you don’t address that problem, the ear infections may keep developing.
As mentioned above, small eustachian tubes may be contributing, in which case ear tubes may be helpful, but more often than not, allergies are the culprit. While it’s normal for everyone to have some swelling in the ear with a virus, allergies can keep the ear in a constant state of inflammation so that fluids simply can’t drain. As a result, bacteria always find a happy home there, causing all kinds of misery for your child–and you!
Rather than accepting ear infections as the status quo, talk to your doctor to find out the root cause. They can order an allergy test kit to understand your child’s allergic sensitivities. They may also prescribe sublingual immunotherapy, which is a pain-free, convenient alternative to allergy shots. Rather than injecting antigens into the body, they are dosed as under-the-tongue drops that kids can take once each day with ease.
The drops have been shown to be safer than shots, particularly for younger children, and their heightened safety profile allows these allergy drops for kids to be administered in the comfort of home rather than at the doctor’s office.
Recurring ear infections are miserable, but there is help for breaking the cycle and avoiding any potentially serious complications for your child.