Ear infections in children

Mom talking to child with an ear infection

Otitis media is a common ear infection that affects children, particularly those under the age of five. There are two main types of otitis media:

  • Acute otitis media (AOM): This is a sudden and painful infection of the middle ear, often caused by a bacterial or viral infection, with symptoms including ear pain, fever, irritability, and difficulty hearing.
  • Otitis media with effusion (OME): This is a less severe but more chronic condition that occurs when fluid builds up in the middle ear after an infection has cleared. OME often doesn't cause any symptoms, but it can lead to hearing problems and delays in speech and language development.

What are the common causes of ear infections (otitis media)?

"Children are more susceptible to otitis media because their Eustachian tubes, which connect the middle ear to the back of the throat, are shorter and more horizontal than those of adults," says Achal R. Dhruva, MD, Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) at ARC Medical Plaza Specialty. "This makes it easier for bacteria or viruses to travel up the tubes and cause an infection."

What are the symptoms of otitis media?

The symptoms of otitis media can vary depending on the type of infection and the age of the child. Some common symptoms of otitis media include:

  • Ear pain or discomfort, which can be severe in AOM.
  • Difficulty hearing or responding to sounds.
  • A feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear.
  • Tugging or pulling on the ear, particularly in infants and toddlers who may not be able to communicate their discomfort in other ways.
  • Fever or general feelings of illness.
  • Irritability or difficulty sleeping.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Drainage of fluid or pus from the ear.

"Not all children with otitis media will exhibit all of these symptoms, and some children may not show any symptoms at all," says Dr. Dhruva. "Additionally, the symptoms of otitis media can be similar to other ear conditions, so it is important to have a doctor evaluate any ear pain or discomfort in a child."

What are the risks of leaving ear infections untreated?

Leaving otitis media (ear infections) untreated can lead to several potential complications, including:

  • Hearing loss: Prolonged or recurrent ear infections can result in permanent hearing loss, particularly in young children who are still developing their hearing.
  • Speech and language delays: Children who experience hearing loss due to untreated ear infections may have difficulty developing language and speaking clearly.
  • Spread of infection: If left untreated, ear infections can spread to other parts of the body, such as the mastoid bone behind the ear or the brain, causing serious and potentially life-threatening complications.
  • Tympanic membrane perforation: The buildup of fluid and pressure in the middle ear can cause the eardrum to rupture, leading to a hole in the eardrum.
  • Chronic otitis media: Untreated ear infections can lead to chronic otitis media, a persistent and long-term infection of the middle ear that can be difficult to treat and can cause significant hearing loss.

"It is important to seek medical treatment for ear infections," says Dr. Dhruva. "Prompt treatment can help prevent complications and improve outcomes for children with ear infections."

Are ear infections contagious?

Ear infections themselves are not contagious, but the underlying bacterial and viral infections that can cause them can be.

"Not all ear infections are caused by infectious agents," reminds Dr. Dhruva. "Some ear infections can be caused by allergies or other non-infectious factors. Your ARC ENT can help distinguish causal or underlying factors during their exam."

What are the treatments for chronic ear infections?

Treatment for otitis media depends on the severity and type of infection. In some cases, antibiotics may be prescribed to fight bacterial infections, while pain relievers and/or warm compresses may be used to manage symptoms. In severe cases, your ARC ENT may recommend the surgical insertion of ear tubes to help drain fluid from the middle ear.

Make an appointment today

At ARC, our ENT doctors offer a wide range of ENT services specifically geared toward children. Conditions treated include sleep apnea, ear infections, sinus problems, snoring, head and neck tumors, hearing loss, speech delay, and voice disorders. ARC ENTs are located in multiple ARC Clinics around Central Texas. To make an appointment visit the ENT Pediatric Care page, select the clinic most convenient to you, and call for an appointment.

Tags: Ear infections, otitis media