Ear infections are a common and almost expected part of a child’s life. More than 80% of children will have at least one infection by their third birthday making it one of the most frequently occurring pediatric ailments.
What causes ear infections?
In order to understand infections, you need to know a bit more about how your child’s ears are made. There are three parts to the ear—the outer, middle and inner ear. The middle ear is connected to the throat and nose with a drainage tube known as the Eustachian tube. When allergies or illness irritate this area the tube can become swollen and fail to drain as it should. As a result, bacteria thrive in the fluid trapped inside causing a middle ear infection (acute otitis media). Babies and children have underdeveloped, shorter Eustachian tubes than an adult, which makes draining fluid more difficult—and raises their risk for more frequent ear infections.
There is no one foolproof method for preventing ear infections, but here are some steps you can take to reduce your child’s risk:
- Try to prevent colds and illness. Teach older children how to sneeze or cough into their elbow, and how to wash their hands. Make sure they wash after using the bathroom and before eating, or wipe their hands with an antibacterial skin cleanser. Stay away from sick children and adults, and if possible limit the amount of time your child spends in group childcare.
- Breastfeed. Breastfeeding for at least six months passes germ-fighting antibodies to babies that can help reduce the risk of ear infections later.
- Hold your baby upright when bottle-feeding. Avoid propping bottles or feeding your baby when he or she is lying flat. This prevents formula or breast milk from washing up and into the Eustachian tubes and causing an infection.
- Avoid cigarette smoke. Ear infection rates are higher in children who breathe secondhand smoke. Take smoking outside and wear a jacket or shirt over regular clothing to avoid carrying smoke in your clothes.
- Keep vaccines up to date. Seasonal vaccines like flu and pneumococcal injections can help prevent illness and subsequent complications like ear infections.
- Consider tubes. As a last option, your doctor may recommend ear tube placement. Ear tubes can drain stagnant fluid from the middle ear and provide ventilation to reduce the number and severity of future ear infections.
Using established ear infection treatments for children when they strike can help reduce the duration of infection and those all-too-common symptoms like pain, fever and irritability. Talk to your doctor about other strategies you can use to keep ear infections at bay and your child as healthy as possible.