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Dr. Nordeng: What to do about children’s ear infections

Dr. Rena Nordeng, Our Town Contributor

Are children more likely than adults to have ear infections?

Yes, children are more susceptible to ear infections, and often get them following another illness, such as a cold, flu or allergy that has caused the child’s nasal passages, throat and/or Eustachian tubes to swell. Usually, these ear infections get better after a day or two and the infections go away within one or two weeks. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that parents wait 48 to 72 hours before making an appointment with a physician. However, if your child has other health problems, call your doctor when you first notice symptoms.

What symptoms is my child likely to have?

Ear infections can be very painful due to the buildup of fluids and inflammation in the ear. Older children are likely to tell you their ear hurts. Common symptoms include the child tugging or pulling at an ear, being irritable and crying more than usual and having difficulty sleeping. You may also notice reduced response to noises, poor balance, little or no appetite and diarrhea. If your child begins to have fluid, pus or blood drain from the ear or has a fever of 100 or higher, call your doctor right away.

How can I reduce my child’s pain or discomfort?

Placing a warm, moist cloth over the ear can help diminish pain. Over-the-counter pain relievers can also provider relief; be sure to follow the age and dosage instructions on the package. Your physician may also prescribe eardrops or, when necessary, antibiotic therapy.

Are ear infections a serious threat to my child’s health?

Hearing loss, perforation of the ear drum, delays in speech, social and developmental skills and other serious complications can develop in children who have acute, recurrent ear infections or inflammation and fluid buildup in the middle ear that remains after an ear infection has been resolved. If your child experiences frequent ear infections, it’s important that your physician closely monitors your child’s care.

Can ear infections be prevented?

If possible, breastfeed your baby because breast milk contains antibodies that protect babies from illness. If you bottle-feed your baby, keep your baby in a position where he/she is not lying down while drinking from the bottle. Teach your child to wash his/her hands with soap and water, and to not share drinks or eating utensils to prevent the spread of colds. Keep your child away from cigarette smoke, which increases risk of infection. Limit your child’s exposure to group settings in fall and winter during the cold and flu season.

Will recurrent ear infections diminish as my child grows?

Infants through 2-year-olds are more susceptible because they have more fragile immune systems. Children, in general, are more susceptible because their Eustachian tubes are narrower, making it more likely they can get clogged. As children grow, these types of problems diminish. However, some children may require medical procedures, such as ear tubes, which drain fluid buildup from the middle ear. Your physician will work with you to determine if and when a medical intervention is necessary.

Nordeng, a board certified family medicine physician, sees patients at Sanford Health Dickinson Clinic. Nordeng completed her medical degree at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Grand Forks, and her residency at Idaho State University in Pocatello. To request an appointment, call 701-456-6144.