Infants & Ear Infections

By admin
March 07, 2016

Doctor examining baby boy with otoscope

Besides the common cold, ear infections are one of the most common disorders in children, and one of the hardest to detect, since symptoms can be non-specific and confusing. For parents of infants and toddlers it can be especially difficult to know what’s going on because let’s face it, your baby isn’t talking (at least not verbally, but his or her body language may give some hints). So what’s a parent to do? There are some general warning signs you can look for if you suspect an ear infection, but even these are hit and miss at best.

Besides the common cold, ear infections are one of the most common disorders in children, and one of the hardest to detect, since symptoms can be non-specific and confusing. For parents of infants and toddlers it can be especially difficult to know what’s going on because let’s face it, your baby isn’t talking (at least not verbally, but his or her body language may give some hints). So what’s a parent to do? There are some general warning signs you can look for if you suspect an ear infection, but even these are hit and miss at best.

Well-Being spoke with Jeffrey D. Carron, M.D., Pediatric Otolaryngologist, and Professor of Otolaryngology and Communicative Science at the University of Mississippi Medical Center about the elusive symptoms of ear infection in infants, how it may be treated and things parents can do to help reduce their child’s risk of chronic or recurring infections.

“Determining if a baby has an ear infection can be challenging,” notes Dr. Carron. “Often the most obvious symptom is abnormal fussiness. You know your baby, so when they seem unusually cranky for an extended period of time, that can be an indicator. Also a fever of 100.5o or more may be present. The baby may have trouble sleeping and may pull at the ear, but that could be for other reasons. There also could be some drainage from the ear. If your baby is having a combination of these symptoms, it’s safest to see the doctor so his or her ears can be checked thoroughly and proper treatment prescribed.”

Parents can help their child’s doctor diagnose the problem if they are armed with some information. Your doctor will probably ask the following questions:

  • How long have symptoms been present?
  • What OTC medications have you given him or her to help with pain or fever?
  • What other illnesses have they had recently?
  • Has the baby been exposed to other people that are ill at daycare or elsewhere?
  • Is the baby often exposed to tobacco smoke in the home?
  • Is the mother breastfeeding?

“Before antibiotics, ear infections could be very serious, leading to a loss of hearing, infection in the tissues around the brain and spinal chord or infection of the bone behind the ear,” Carron explains. “Once antibiotics were available they became widely prescribed for ear infections and have helped to prevent some of the more serious results of chronic infections of the ear.”

“However, today we are all too aware of the over-use of antibiotics and are careful to only prescribe them when they are absolutely needed,” he continues. “Historically about 80 to 85% of ear infections will resolve themselves without antibiotics. When there is a question about whether or not antibiotics are needed, we sometimes strike a compromise and suggest that parents not fill the prescription for two days in case symptoms improve.”

According to Dr. Carron, there are certain conditions under which he generally does prescribe an antibiotic:

  • If a child is under 6 months of age, since their immune system is not yet strong enough to fight off infection.
  • If a child has had another ear infection in the last month – which probably means the last infection never fully cleared up.
  • If the baby or child has a fever of 102o or higher, or if they have severe ear pain not helped by an OTC medicine such as Tylenol.
  • If the child has a chronic illness, cochlear implants or a compromised immune system.

Well-Being asked if there is anything parents can do to lessen the risk of their baby or young child contracting an ear infection.

baby plays in doctor toy bear and stethoscope“The most common risk factors for ear infection may surprise you,” notes Carron. “The first one is exposure to other children who may be sick, such as in a daycare setting. Parents can’t always control that, but it can mean their baby is at higher risk of getting an infection. Secondly, exposure to smoke in the home – that’s something parents can control. There is evidence that exposure to smoke causes a drop in antibodies and smoke poisons the mucus membranes so the cilia don’t work. Next, make sure your baby or young child has had their vaccinations – specifically HIB and Prevnar, which are the primary reason that severe complications of otitis media have all but disappeared. Finally, if the baby is bottle fed formula instead of breastfed, there is an increased risk of ear infections. Breastfeeding helps to prevent ear infections because antibodies from the mother are passed along to the baby in the breast milk.”

To lessen your baby’s discomfort from an ear infection, your pediatrician may recommend acetaminophen or ibuprofen. But avoid over-the-counter eardrops unless your doctor prescribes them, as they can cause permanent damage if your child’s eardrum is perforated. Also steer clear of flying on a plane when your child has an ear infection because subtle ambient pressure shifts can increase ear pain.

Jeffrey D. Carron, M.D., Pediatric Otolaryngologist and Professor of Otolaryngology and Communicative Science at UMMC, received his Doctor of Medicine degree from Tulane University School of Medicine. He completed his internship in General Surgery and Residency in Otolaryngology at Eastern Virginia Medical School, and served a fellowship in Pediatric Otolaryngology at the University of Washington/ Children’s Hospital in Seattle. Dr. Carron was instrumental in establishing the first cochlear implant program at UMMC and has successfully implanted over 200 children and adults since its inception.

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