FAQs: Ear infections – how common are they, how are they treated, will antibiotics help?
Posted on 27 July 2018
Ear infections are a bacterial complication that can affect anyone but children are more prone as their resistance to infection is still underdeveloped. An ENT explains what to look out for and why chronic, untreated infections are something to be concerned about.
What is an ear infection?
An ear infection happens when the Eustachian tubes in your middle ear become blocked or inflamed. This leads to a fluid build-up behind your eardrum and results in an ear infection. This often develops after a cold, sore throat or other upper respiratory tract infection. If the illness was caused by bacteria, the same bacteria can spread to your middle ear and cause an infection.
Why are children more susceptible to ear infections?
Dr Gawie de Villiers, an ENT at Mediclinic Vergelegen offers his insight. ‘Children who get ear infections tend to be genetically predisposed to them. These infections often affect children under the age six because their resistance to bacteria and viruses are still underdeveloped. They usually get upper respiratory tract infections which then lead to ear infections.
A young child’s Eustachian tubes are shorter and narrower which means it’s easier for the virus or bacteria to travel to the middle ear. This doesn’t mean adults won’t get ear infections, but Dr de Villiers explains that adults tend to get outer ear rather than middle ear infections.
How common are ear infections?
Ear infections are one of the most common reasons parents bring their kids to see a doctor. According to the National Institute of Deafness and other Communication Disorders1 (NIDCD), five out of six children will have an ear infection by the time they turn three.
What signs should parents look out for in babies who aren’t talking yet?
Often ear infections affect children who aren’t yet able to talk. This can be distressing for parents who don’t know why their baby is in obvious pain. Here are some signs to look out for if you suspect your toddler has an ear infection:
- Tugging or pulling at their ears
- Fussiness and crying
- Trouble sleeping
- Fluid draining from their ear(s)
- Clumsiness or problems with balance
- Trouble hearing or responding to quiet sounds
What are the symptoms of ear infections?
The symptoms of chronic ear infections tend to be less severe than acute ear infections. Common symptoms of ear infections include:
- mild pain or discomfort inside the ear
- a persistent feeling of pressure inside the ear
- fussiness in young infants
- pus-like ear drainage
- hearing loss
- a fever.
How should an ear infection be treated?
Contrary to popular belief, antibiotics are not always necessary, especially if the infection is viral. And although painful, it will often clear up with no intervention within two weeks. If the ear infection does result in pus, fever and a bulging eardrum, a secondary bacterial infection is usually present and antibiotics and pain medication will be prescribed.
Some ways you can try to alleviate the more troubling symptoms of a mild ear infection include:
- apply a warm cloth to the affected ear
- take over-the-counter pain medication such as ibuprofen
- use over-the-counter or prescription ear drops to relieve pain
- take over-the-counter decongestants such as pseudoephedrine
What happens if an ear infection persists despite antibiotics?
Untreated, recurring and chronic middle ear infections can lead to a ruptured eardrum and eventual hearing loss. If a child doesn’t respond to antibiotics then surgery may be an option.
Dr de Villiers, who performed a number of tympanoplasties during Mediclinic’s ongoing collaborative surgeries programme, explains this surgery is performed after the infection has healed.
Mediclinic recently provided surgeries pro bono to the patients of George Provincial Hospital. The surgeries in the ENT sector included a range of tonsillectomies, grommets and tympanoplasty procedures for young patients on the state’s waiting list.
The most common surgery to alleviate ear infections in children is grommets. A grommet is a tiny tube inserted into a hole in the eardrum to prevent an accumulation of fluid in the middle ear. Dr de Villiers says this also improves a child’s hearing. This, in turn, affects their speech development and the way they perform at school.