Head & Neck

Chronic Ear Infections in Children

written by Becki Andrus

An earache is one of the most common medical complaints in children. Whether your child is old enough to communicate their pain and discomfort, or you see a young child pulling at their ear, it’s important to evaluate the symptoms and determine the proper treatment.

Not only can ear infections cause discomfort, but chronic ear conditions can affect a child’s ability to hear. These ongoing issues can lead to other concerns such as challenges with learning and communication.

Acute vs. Chronic Ear Infections

With an acute ear infection, the symptoms develop quickly and can result in moderate or severe pain and discomfort. Often, acute ear infections are a secondary infection that happens when a child is sick. For example, a viral infection can cause a head cold, then the congestion leads to an ear infection. Treatment using medication such as antibiotics can clear up the infection and then the symptoms go away.

On the other hand, the symptoms of a chronic ear infection are milder – but these symptoms are ongoing.

Chronic ear infections can affect one or two ears. These symptoms often include:

  • Low fever
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Sense of pressure in the ear
  • Mild ear discomfort
  • Fluid draining from the ears
  • Sleeping problems
  • Infant fussiness

When the fluid remains in the ear for a long time, or the fluid returns over and over again after treatment, then it falls in the category of a chronic ear infection.

Why Does My Child Have Chronic Ear Infections?

A variety of factors can increase the risk of chronic ear infections. In most situations, the child has an accumulation of mucus and fluid in back of the eardrum because the ears aren’t draining effectively. The Eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the upper throat, and it should allow the drainage of this fluid. But if this tube is blocked, then it can result in a buildup within the middle ear.

In young children, the Eustachian tube is narrower and shorter compared to adults. As a result, children have a higher risk of blockages. Additionally, children’s immune systems aren’t developed in the same way as adults, making it more difficult to fight infections.

When to See an ENT for Ear Infections

Prompt treatment of an ear infection is important to relieve your child’s discomfort, pain, and sickness. When you are proactive with treating acute ear infections, it prevents the risk of the development of chronic ear infections.

Talk to a doctor if you notice these symptoms in your child:

  • The child is not responding to acute ear infection treatment recommended by a doctor
  • New symptoms are developing
  • Ear infection symptoms are worsening
  • Symptoms are recurring over time

Medical Services: Diagnosing Ear Infections

When your child visits an ENT for chronic ear infections, a variety of exams and procedures can be done to determine the cause of this issue. For example, the doctor will look to your child’s ears, nose, and throat to see signs of congestion, irritation, or inflammation. At the same time, the doctor will ask questions about recent illnesses, symptoms, and the timeline of the infection.

This general examination often uncovers important information to help with diagnosis, then the doctor can design a treatment plan. Sometimes, additional testing is needed, such as a tympanometer with a tiny speaker and microphone, that uses air pressure for measuring the flexibility of the eardrum.

Treatment Options for Ear Infections

A definite diagnosis of an acute ear infection can be treated using medication if needed. But the American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that patients wait a day or two to monitor symptoms to see if an earache goes away. Sometimes, over the counter pain relievers can be used to manage the discomfort, helping to avoid the overuse of antibiotics if they aren’t needed.

The treatment for chronic ear infections is different though. You might be able to relieve the immediate discomfort by holding a cool or warm washcloth over the ear, taking pain relievers, or using ear drops. But you should seek medical care since chronic ear infections won’t likely clear up without medical intervention.

If the child isn’t responding to medication or if infections are recurrent, then surgery might be recommended. During this procedure, a small tube is inserted through the eardrum to open the space between the middle ear and the outer ear. These ear tubes help the ears to drain, so pressure doesn’t build in the middle ear and lead to infection. Often, the placement of ear tubes can be a great way to reduce the number of ear infections and the severity of symptoms when these infections develop. Usually, ear tubes are placed in both ears during this surgery.

After the surgery, the tubes usually fall out within 6 to 24 months. If the tubes don’t fall out on their own, then it might be necessary to have the tubes removed surgically.

Preventing Other Childhood Concerns

Even if your child only has mild symptoms of a chronic ear infection, this health concern can cause a domino effect that impacts many other aspects of the child’s life. Chronic ear infections that don’t respond to treatment can result in hearing problems. Children with hearing issues often experience a delay in language development and speech that can lead to future learning concerns.

Untreated chronic ear infections could also damage the bones in the middle ear, cause an infection in the mastoid bone, result in cysts within the middle ear, increase inflammation around the brain, or lead to facial paralysis. While these side effects are not common, there are potential risks of delaying treatment for a chronic ear infection.

Schedule an Appointment with a Local ENT Near Dallas in Collin County

If you think that your child has chronic ear infections, then consulting with an ENT is the best thing you can do to prevent other medical issues. Proactive treatment right now can be a great way to help your child recover and avoid long-term problems later in life.

Do you live near the Collin County or Dallas areas and you need to schedule an ENT appointment? Our knowledgeable team at Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat is just a phone call away. We offer comprehensive services for people of all ages. Contact us right away to schedule an examination at our offices in Frisco or Plano, TX. We have a convenient online appointment request form. Or you can call (972) 596-4005.

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