What Causes Ear Infections in Children?

Baby with bottle lying down in crib
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There are many causes of ear infections. Middle Ear infections (also called otitis media) are most often seen in children — and certain children seem to have an affinity for developing them. To understand what an ear infection is and what may have caused it you must first understand the anatomy of the middle ear. The middle ear is connected to the back of the throat by a small tube commonly called the auditory tube or Eustachian tube.

Under normal circumstances, this tube remains open and allows unwanted fluid and debris to drain from the ear and into the back of the throat. When this tube becomes clogged with mucous or fluid and fails to drain properly, bacteria or other germs may become trapped inside of the ear causing an infection. Ear infections can be caused by a bacteria, virus, or another germ.

Why Does My Child Keep Getting Ear Infections?

The causes of ear infections are the same in adults and children. However, because children have a shorter auditory tube than adults it is easier for the tube to become clogged. In other words, the actual anatomy of your child's auditory tube can put him at a higher risk for developing ear infections. The following conditions or risk factors may increase your child's chances of developing chronic ear infections:

  • Ear infections often originate from a cold or allergies. Children who are exposed to a lot of other children, (such as in a daycare setting), are at a higher risk of catching the common cold and a subsequent ear infection. If your child must attend daycare make sure their vaccinations are up to date and teach them proper hand washing techniques. If your child has been diagnosed with allergies make sure they are being treated properly.
  • Ear infections are one of many problems that can result from exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke.
  • Babies who are bottle fed are more likely to develop ear infections than babies who are breastfed. This is due to the fact that when a baby lays flat and sucks from a bottle the auditory tube collapses. You can prevent this by keeping your child upright while bottle feeding.

    Can My Child Get an Ear Infection from Swimming?

    Sometimes children who are frequent swimmers develop a condition called swimmer's ear which is an infection of the outer ear and is not the same thing as a middle ear infection. Swimmer's ear occurs when contaminated water sits inside of the ear canal and germs grow, you don't have to be a swimmer to get it. Here are some suggestions for preventing swimmer's ear:

    • Use removable ear plugs while swimming
    • Dry the ear thoroughly after getting out of the pool, bathing, or any time you get your ears wet . You can use a hair dryer on the lowest heat setting.
    • Don't use Q-tips or other objects to clean or dry the ear as they may introduce bacteria into the ear canal.
    • Take baths instead of showers and be careful not to allow any water to enter your ears while washing your hair.
    • Do not remove earwax.

    Sources:

    American Academy of Family Physicians. Otitis Externa: A Practical Guide to Treatment and Prevention. Accessed: October 24, 2016 from http://www.aafp.org/afp/20010301/927.html

    American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery. Swimmer's Ear. Accessed: October 24, 2016 from http://www.entnet.org/content/swimmers-ear

    Medline Plus. Ear Infections. Accessed: October 24, 2016  from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/earinfections.html

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