“Otitis media,” an infection of the middle ear, is a common illness in children. In fact, by the time a child turns three, over 80% of them will have had an ear infection.
Inflammation, a buildup of fluid in the ear, or both, can cause temporary hearing loss. The fluid builds up in the air-filled space behind the eardrum, making it harder for the eardrum and the bones in the middle ear to move. This can cause temporary hearing loss that can be bothersome. Most of the time, these infections happen after a cold.
Ear infections often have signs that make them easy to spot. Parents should know these signs and when to take their kids to the doctor. Most ear infections will go away if you treat them quickly, and your hearing will get better as the infection goes away and the fluid drains out of your ear.
Early signs in younger kids
It can be hard to tell if a baby or young child has an ear infection because they don’t have the language skills to tell you what’s wrong. But if the pain is severe, they will make it clear that they are in pain. If your baby or toddler has an infection in the middle ear, they may show these signs:
- A fever, especially one that is over 102 degrees Fahrenheit
- Getting in your ears (this is a less reliable marker, as it can also be a sign of teething)
- Getting angrier, especially when lying down
- Trouble falling asleep
- Having less hunger
- Taking longer to respond to noises and voices
- Fluid or pus that comes out of the ear.
Signs and symptoms in older kids, teens, and adults
Remember that ear infection usually happens after you’ve had cold symptoms for a few days. With an ear infection, an older child, teen, or adult may show or complain of:
- A lot of heat
- Persistent earache
- A pressure feeling in the ears
- A feeling that people can’t be heard
- Feelings of dizziness or trouble keeping your balance
- Can’t understand what people say or keep up with conversations.
- Vomiting or general nausea
Make an appointment with your pediatrician or family doctor immediately if you, your baby, or your child shows any of the above symptoms. Ear infections can be painful and sometimes lead to a burst eardrum. In rare cases, they can also cause mastoiditis, an infection of the mastoid bone at the base of the skull that can be life-threatening.
Why do kids tend to get ear infections so often?
We know that ear infections happen when bacteria or viruses get into a fluid that builds up in the middle ear. When the Eustachian tube, a small tube between the throat and the middle ear, gets blocked, fluid builds up. Most of the time, this blockage is caused by the swelling that comes with congestion or a cold. Why, though, are children more likely to get this blockage?
One of the main reasons is that a child’s Eustachian tubes are shorter, less angled, and less rigid than an adult’s. This makes it more likely for fluid and germs to get stuck in the middle ear. Young children are also more likely to get ear infections because their immune systems are still developing. This makes it harder for them to fight off viruses and bacteria that cause infections than for adults.
Ear infections and hearing loss
Blockages from fluid during an ear infection could lead to conductive hearing loss. This is because fluid buildup blocks the middle ear instead of hurting the auditory nerve, which is what sensorineural hearing loss does. Conductive hearing loss can also be caused by anything stopping sound from getting through the middle ear. This can show up as a buildup of wax, fluid in the middle ear, or a hole in the eardrum.
When the ear infection goes away and fluid can drain out of the middle ear, this hearing loss usually goes away on its own. Most ear infections go away on their own, especially if the person gets a lot of rest, takes vitamin C and zinc to boost their immune system, and drinks plenty of water. If an ear infection doesn’t disappear, your doctor will probably give you antibiotics to help ease the pain. Most of the time, this will take care of an ear infection in just a few days. If the pain from an ear infection goes away before you’ve taken all your antibiotics, you should still take them all to ensure the infection is gone for good.
Don’t let it get to this point for your hearing loss. If you have a hearing loss, it’s best not to ignore it because if it’s not treated, it can make it hard to talk to people, make you depressed, and anxious, and leave you feeling alone. If you think you might have trouble hearing, make an appointment today for a hearing test.