Ear infections can be painful no matter how old you are, but for kids, the discomfort can be intense. Unfortunately, kids also tend to be a lot more prone to ear infections than adults. In fact, the National Institutes of Health says about five out of every six kids has at least one ear infection by the time they’re three years old. Ear infections occur so often in kids, they’re the number-one reason parents take their kids to the doctor. But what is it that makes kids so prone to ear infections? And is there anything you can do as a parent to reduce your child’s risks?
The ear can be divided into three main “sections”: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.
Outer ear infections (also called otitis externa) occur when germs infect the ear canal that runs from the outer part of the ear to the eardrum. Another common name for these infections is swimmer’s ear, since these infections occur more commonly in kids who swim or spend a lot of time in swimming pools. That’s because when water remains in your child’s ear after swimming, it creates a warm, moist environment that’s ideal for bacterial growth.
Middle ear infections (otitis media) are the most common type of ear infections in kids. The middle ear extends from the eardrum to the inner ear. This part of the ear contains tiny bones that vibrate with sound waves, transmitting those waves to the inner ear (and ultimately, the brain). Ear infections here tend to involve the eustachian tube, a thin passageway between the ear and the throat. The eustachian tube keeps the ear aerated and drains away fluid that gets trapped in the middle ear. Middle ear infections often follow an upper respiratory infection, when germs from the throat travel up the tube to the ear. Swelling and excess mucus can also block the tube, preventing drainage and increasing bacterial growth inside the middle ear.
Inner ear infections (otitis interna) typically occur when an infection in the middle ear spreads to the inner ear, where the auditory nerve is located. The inner ear also contains a structure called the labyrinth, which helps us keep our balance, and the cochlea, which converts vibrations from the middle ear into electrical impulses carried by the auditory nerve to the brain.
Kids tend to develop more ear infections than adults for several reasons. First, the eustachian tubes in children tend to be more horizontal than they are in adults. That makes it a lot harder for fluid to drain from the ear to the throat. If the child also has a throat infection, a cold, or another type of upper respiratory infection, excess mucus and swelling of the mucous membranes can block the tube entirely. What’s more, when a child is very young, they may not know how to properly blow their nose, which can make it hard for the eustachian tube to clear itself.
The immune system may also play a role. Most children are still developing a stronger immune system, which means their immunity to colds and infections tends naturally to be lower than most adults. As a result, children can be more prone to many types of illnesses, including ear infections. Some ear infections occur when germs get “caught” in small glands called adenoids, which are located at the back of the mouth, where the nose meets the throat. Adenoids are part of the immune system, and if they get infected, they can pass those germs on to the ear via the eustachian tubes.
As a parent, you want to do all you can to prevent your child from getting sick. But when it comes to ear infections, a child’s growing anatomy plays a role beyond a parent's control. As your child grows, the eustachian tubes become more vertical, which means it’s a lot easier for the child's ears to drain. Their immune system also gets stronger with age. And younger kids eventually learn how to blow their noses. Until then, the best way to prevent your kids from getting a really bad infection is to bring them in at the first sign of an earache (which is typically the earliest symptom of an infection). Early treatment prevents the infection from spreading to the inner ear, and it can also prevent scarring, which could interfere with hearing.
At DOCCS, we begin treatment with an evaluation of your child’s symptoms and the ear itself. When we determine an infection is present, we typically prescribe antibiotics and ear drops to get rid of the “bad” germs. We may also provide other medicine to relieve discomfort and fever. If your child has chronic ear infections, we may recommend a more in-depth evaluation to determine if additional treatment is warranted. Don't let an earache go untreated. If your child has ear pain, book an appointment online today.