Ear infections, typically caused by bacteria or a virus, almost always develop in the middle portion of the ear. The bacteria grow in fluid that builds up behind the ear drum. An ear infection can happen to just about anyone, but children are the most susceptible. About 75 percent of all children will have at least one by the age of 3, and many get them much more frequently.
Children get more ear infections than adults for several reasons. Their ears are still growing and developing, so the passageways are shorter, more horizontal and narrow than in an adult. This makes fluid buildup and infection more likely. Children also have a developing immune system, so they can’t fight off infection as easily as an adult can.
Symptoms of Ear Infections
Because ear infections frequently occur in very young children, it can be difficult to tell when one is present. Tugging or pulling at the ears might be a symptom, but this could also have nothing to do with an ear infection. However, fluid coming from the ears is an obvious warning sign, and pain and crying, especially when lying down, as well as fever, headache or increased difficulty sleeping are likely to indicate an ear infection, too.
Sometimes an ear infection resolves on its own without the need for any medication. Still, it’s best to speak with a doctor about an ear infection to determine the person's specific needs. Often, in a young child or when multiple ear infections occur, a prescription of antibiotics is warranted. If repeated ear infections and fluid buildup are affecting the ability to hear, a doctor may recommend the insertion of ear tubes. These are small devices that help open up the ear and ease the passage of fluid from the ears. The procedure is generally low-risk, and the tubes often fall out on their own in about six to nine months. Flu vaccines, frequent hand washings and not smoking around a child are steps can all help prevent the spread of ear infections.
SOURCES: U.S. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communications Disorders; American Academy of Pediatrics
Germ communities in the middle ear differ greatly between affected and unaffected people, study shows