Adults rarely get earaches, so it may seem odd for some parents to hear their child often complaining of ear pain.
At Woodstock Family Practice & Urgent Care in Woodstock, Georgia, we help parents and their kids understand and get through chronic childhood earaches. Here, Dr. James Lee explains why kids are so vulnerable to earaches, and what you can do about them.
Reasons kids get frequent earaches
An earache — pain in the ear — is a symptom, not a condition. Ear pain can stem from various problems, including swimmer’s ear (infection in the external ear canal), jaw joint problems (TMJ), eustachian tube dysfunction, trauma, wax buildup, and teething, to name a few.
Most often, an earache is a sign that your child has an ear infection, which occurs when fluid builds up in the middle ear behind the eardrum, and bacteria multiply. Five out of six kids will experience at least one ear infection by age 3.
Children are more susceptible to ear infections than adults for several reasons.
Small eustachian tubes
The ear has a tunnel between the middle ear and the back of the throat called a eustachian tube. Excess fluid drains through the eustachian tube and prevents pressure from building up inside the ear.
Children’s eustachian tubes are relatively small and level compared with adults, which makes them vulnerable to blockage.
Immature immune systems
Upper respiratory infections like the common cold can trigger an ear infection in your child. Viruses and bacteria migrate to the middle ear and set up shop, increasing fluid and blocking the eustachian tube.
Because your child’s immune system isn’t fully developed, they can’t fight off the infection.
Adenoids are small patches of tissue near the tonsils at the back of the throat. They fight off infection in babies and children by trapping germs, and they become less active during adulthood.
If bacteria remain trapped in the adenoids, they often transfer to the middle ear and eustachian tube, causing recurrent, chronic ear infections.
Ear infection symptoms
Ear infection symptoms vary from child to child and largely depend on the type of ear infection, technically called otitis media.
The most common type of ear infection is acute otitis media, trapped fluid in the middle ear. The symptoms are pain and sometimes fever.
After acute otitis media, your child’s symptoms may disappear, but the fluid may remain. This is called otitis media with effusion, and Dr. Lee can see the buildup with a special scope.
If the fluid remains and won’t drain, your child will likely continue to experience ear infections called chronic otitis media with effusion.
If your child complains of ear pain, see Dr. Lee right away. If your child is too young to communicate verbally, watch for these common signs that your child has an ear infection:
- Fluid draining from the ear
- Constant crying and general irritability
- Restless sleep
- Balance problems
- Pulling or tugging at the ear
- Difficulty hearing
If fever accompanies any of these symptoms, seek urgent care immediately.
Preventing and treating ear infections
Statistically, childhood ear infections are almost inevitable, but you can improve your child’s odds of avoiding this common ailment by following commonsense precautions.
Limit your child’s exposure to other children who are sick. Runny noses, coughs, and sneezes spread germs from child to child.
Wash your hands frequently when caring for your infant or toddler, and wash their hands too.
Don’t put your baby to bed with a bottle because the liquid can settle in the eustachian tube, and the sugars in the formula, milk, or juice encourage bacterial infections.
If Dr. Lee diagnoses an ear infection, he may prescribe an antibiotic to help your child fight the infection.
If your child has chronic otitis media with effusion that doesn’t respond to antibiotics, Dr. Lee may recommend a routine surgical procedure to implant a ventilation tube in the ear. These tubes improve airflow and decrease fluid buildup; they fall out on their own in about six months.
If adenoids are the culprit, they may need to be surgically removed.
Book an appointment with us online or over the phone today to find out what’s causing your child’s earache, and get them the treatment they need.