Help For Chronic Ear Infections

Ear infections are common and painful. They seem to happen over and over, particularly in children. In fact, ear infections are the second most common childhood illness in the United States. These infections (“otitis media”) are caused when fluid behind the eardrum is unable to drain, trapping bacteria and viruses.

Most children will have at least one ear infection before they are three years old.  But chronic ear infections can lead to hearing loss, and in severe cases, damage the tiny bones within the ear, affect balance or even cause swelling near the brain.

Causes and Symptoms of Ear Infections

Ear infections may be caused by a virus, bacteria, colds, allergies, or the flu. In many cases, chronic ear infections are caused by a narrow or blocked Eustachian tube. This tube connects the middle ear to the back of the throat and helps stabilize the pressure between the middle ear. If your ears have ever “popped,” that’s a sign that the Eustachian tube is doing its job. But when this tube is swollen or blocked, it sets the stage for an infection. In addition, children have narrower and more horizontal Eustachian tubes than adults, which is one reason ear infections are more common in children.  This illustration shows the difference between the Eustachian tube of an adult versus that of a child.

Symptoms of an ear infection may appear in one or both ears and include:

  • A low-grade fever
  • Ear pressure
  • Pus-like ear drainage
  • Hearing loss
  • Infants with an ear infection may be fussy

Relief For Chronic Ear Infections

If chronic ear infections are making you or your children miserable, there's help. First, it’s vital to get help from a physician who specializes in treating diseases of the ear, nose and throat. These specialists are called ENTs, otolaryngologists or ear, nose and throat doctors. The ENT can evaluate the underlying cause of chronic ear infections and check the eardrum to ensure that it hasn’t ruptured.

Treatment options may include:

Antibiotics

An ENT may take a fluid culture to determine the type of bacteria present and the best antibiotic to fight it. In some cases, antibiotics may need to be taken for a month or longer.

Debridement

During a debridement, a surgeon cleans out tissue that is trapping fluid within the ear, allowing the fluid to drain.

Ear Tube Surgery

During this surgery, the ENT makes a small incision in the eardrum and inserts a small tube. This tube helps trapped fluid drain.

Vaccines

The conjugate pneumococcal vaccine, routinely given to infants, is effective against some of the same bacteria that cause ear infections. Speak with your doctor to see if this would be an appropriate course of treatment

 

If chronic ear infections plague you or your child, your ENT may need to perform surgery to repair or replace tiny bones in the middle ear that may be damaged. Because repeated ear infections can cause hearing loss, your doctor may also recommend a hearing test from a licensed audiologist.

 

For more information on ear infections, visit the website for the American Academy of Otolaryngology.

 


Sources:

 

The Mayo Clinic. “Ear Infection (Middle Ear).”

The Nemours Foundation. Kids Health. “Middle Ear Infections.”

NIH: U.S. National Library of Medicine. “Ear Tube Insertion.”

NIH: U.S. National Library of Medicine.  “Ear Infection- Chronic.”

WebMD. “What Causes an Ear Infection?”