How to Keep Ear Infections at Bay and Protect Your Child’s Hearing
Ear infections are a serious concern for many parents of young children. Ear infections are not only painful and can cause terrible earaches, but they may also result in temporary hearing loss. In some cases, enough pressure builds up to burst the eardrum.
While ear infections often resolve on their own within a matter of days or weeks, the parents’ worries are therefore not unfounded.
Some of the unlucky people whose children, or they themselves get painful ear infections regularly, see them as something they just have to live with – which is a common misconception.
If you or your child are susceptible to ear infections, know that there are ways to protect yourself and your loved ones, and dramatically reduce the risk of getting ear infections!
But why are some children prone to getting ear infections? Who else is at risk? And most importantly, how do you prevent and treat ear infections?
We’ve created a guide to help you and your family on your way to better hearing health. This guide will cover the following:
- The causes of ear infections
- Common signs and symptoms
- Factors that increase the risk of ear infections
- Six preventive measures
For more information, please speak to your GP or visit the Australian Health Direct website.
What Causes Ear Infections?
|Ear infections can be caused by bacteria, fungi or viruses that enter the ear canal or a malfunction of the Eustachian tube that connects the ear and throat.|
The human ear comprises three parts:
- The outer ear, which includes the visible part of the ear and the ear canal that leads to the eardrum.
- The middle ear, which is separated from the outer ear by the eardrum. It contains tiny, fragile bones that amplify sound.
- The inner ear, where sound waves are turned into electrical signals (nerve impulses) and sent to the brain.
These parts can become infected by bacteria, fungi or viruses and cause a painful ear infection.
However, in most cases, ear infections result from a malfunction of the Eustachian tube.
The Eustachian tube is a narrow canal that links the middle ear and throat area. Its purpose is to equalise the pressure between the outer ear and the middle ear and drain fluid from the middle ear.
If the Eustachian tube doesn’t work as intended, it can cause a build-up of fluid behind the eardrum.
When fluid cannot drain, bacteria, fungi and viruses may flourish in the ear, which eventually leads to a middle ear infection (otitis media).
Due to anatomical differences, children are particularly prone to middle ear infections.
Very young children can be particularly susceptible, as their Eustachian tubes are short, soft, and flat, making it even harder to drain fluid easily.
- About three out of four children have at least one episode of otitis media by the time they are three years of age.
- Around four out of five children will experience a middle ear infection at least once.
Source: Medline Plus
Are you worried about your child’s hearing? Learn about the signs of hearing loss in children of all ages and find out where you can get your child’s hearing tested.
The Signs and Symptoms of an Ear Infection
The symptoms of an ear infection depend on the type, but may include:
What Are The Health Risks of Untreated Ear Infections?
If left untreated, ear infections can lead to serious health complications, including
- Temporary hearing loss, if infections occur frequently or never fully heal.
- There also is a risk of permanent hearing loss, which affects about two in 10,000 people who suffer from an ear infection.
- Mastoiditis, an infection of the bones in the ear. Symptoms may include redness, swollen ear lobes and headaches.
- Meningitis, an infection of the membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord.
- Brain abscess, if pus gathers in the brain. Symptoms of a brain abscess may include fever, nausea, vomiting and headaches.
- A ruptured eardrum, if the eardrum bursts due to fluid building up. Ninety per cent of ruptured eardrums heal on their own.
- Facial paralysis. The facial nerve that moves your face runs through the ear. As a result of infection, you can develop a facial paralysis that affects one side of your face. This only occurs in about one in every 2,000 cases.
Source: Medline Plus
Top 6 Tips for Reducing The Risk of Ear Infections
If left untreated, ear infections can become serious and permanently damage your hearing. Doing your best to prevent ear infections, therefore, becomes ever more important.
One of the simplest ways to protect your ears from infection is to have a good standard of hygiene. The basic principles for good hygiene start with hand washing.
We constantly use our hands to touch objects, handle food, eat, touch our faces and much more. Bacteria accompanies us always and is on all surfaces.
Washing our hands after touching objects and surfaces handled by others, before and after using the bathroom and whenever we have come into direct contact with someone, such as shaking their hand, is essential.
This basic hygiene routine will go a long way in reducing the transmission of germs.
2. Flu vaccines
Recent evidence has shown that taking protective measures against flu with a vaccine produced four per cent fewer cases of otitis media ear infections.
Although this reduction is slight, it does show that getting vaccinated as a protective measure against the flu can reduce the occurrence of ear infections both in adults and children.
Earlier evidence has also found that the bacteria streptococcus pneumonia, flu causing bacteria, can be vaccinated against and reduce the likelihood of secondary ear infections.
Although flu strains change, the most common ones now have effective vaccines that can help protect you and your children by reducing your risk of ear infections that commonly occur with flu.
A common way to pick up ear infections is while swimming. Many people are unsure of how to protect their ears in the water.
It’s essential to exercise good ear hygiene in the water, especially when swimming in natural waters where bacteria breed, such as rivers.
If you use a public pool or have one at home, always make sure they are well maintained.
When you are swimming, try to keep your ears dry as you can. There are some good ways to do this with swimming plugs and bathing caps which you can purchase from your pharmacy.
It is essential to see your audiologist to discuss this, as they may advise you to wear custom-made swim plugs for your ears.
This is the best option as they are durable and moulded precisely to the shape of your ears.
Always ensure that you dry your ears thoroughly after swimming. It is best to do this with a towel rather than cotton tips, as cotton tips can push any ear wax deep into your ear and trap any residual water behind the wax.
Ear drying drops are available from your pharmacist may also be used, but do not use these if you have any perforation to your eardrums.
4. Air pollutants and smoking
Ambient air pollution is a known contributor to ear infections, secondary to upper respiratory infections.
Protect yourself by avoiding areas where you know the air quality is poor, such as areas where traffic pollution is high, around factories and keep away from inhaling second-hand cigarette smoke.
Smoking is one of the leading causes of respiratory infections, which frequently lead to ear infections.
Parents who smoke can significantly affect the other family members, and young children and pregnant mothers exposed to cigarette smoke are especially at risk.
If you are pregnant, you should take care not to smoke. Inhaling second-hand smoke and other air pollutants can harm you and your developing baby and may increase your baby’s susceptibility to postnatal infections.
5. Eating and drinking
One of the easiest ways to protect your children from ear infections is to ensure that they sit upright when eating and drinking, especially infants.
Little children may be bottle-fed lying down or in a semi-sitting or lying position. Like this, they frequently fall asleep with their bottle.
This can allow the liquid to enter the eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear space to the back of the throat.
The liquid can travel through the tube and enter the middle ear resulting in an ear infection.
Evidence shows that one of the best things you can do to protect your child against ear infections and respiratory tract infections is to breastfeed for six months or longer.
Breastfeeding for at least six months can not only protect your child against ear infections at this age but also from recurrent ear infections that can continue into early childhood.
6. Untreated allergies
If you notice reoccurring irritations or congestion, a feeling that your ears are blocked or itchy, you may have an allergy.
It is vital to get tested to know what causes your allergy.
If left untreated, allergies can cause chronic sinusitis and a range of secondary conditions due to the bacteria accumulating in your nose and throat.
This can also cause fluid buildup in your middle ear, resulting in ear infections.
You can easily protect yourself against ear infections resulting from allergies by getting tested and avoiding the triggers.
In a Nutshell
Ear infections are often painful and, if left untreated, can cause hearing loss, perforated eardrums and other serious conditions.
Therefore, it is vital to take preventative and protective actions to reduce the risk of ear infections in yourself and your children.
The steps are easy, but if you are unsure how to protect your hearing and ears from infection, book an appointment with your audiologist to discuss your concerns and identify any risk factors for ear infections.