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How common are ear infections in children and what can we do about it?

 

Our ears are amongst the most complex components of the human anatomy, and their functionality is critical to how our body operates. Having an ear infection can negatively affect your child’s life, causing restrictions to her daily activities. Ear infections can be uncomfortable, disruptive and tricky to remedy. This is especially so for young children, whose ear systems are not as developed as that of adults.

If left untreated, infections may cause long-term damage to the middle ear, possibly leading to hearing loss. This is especially detrimental to children who are just learning to speak, as hearing loss may cause delayed speech.

It is important for parents to understand how infections can affect their child’s ears, and how to best mitigate the impact.

What is ear infection?

“Ear infections can be classified into outer ear infections (otitis externa) or middle ear infections (otitis media),” explains Dr Dawn Teo, medical director at The Children’s Eye & ENT Centre at Mt Alvernia Hospital. “    External ear infections can occur at any age group whilst otitis media is more common in children up to the age of seven or eight.”

“Middle ear infections are very common in childhood, due to the immaturity of the anatomy of the ear,” says Dr Teo. “As the child grows to the age of seven or eight, they are less likely to get these infections.”

What are the main causes?

Some factors, such has having a cold, sore throat and respiratory infection can trigger otitis media. Allergic reactions can also cause swelling and congestion along the throat, nose and eustachian tube (small canal connecting middle ear to the upper part of the throat), preventing regular flow of fluids and air. Having pre-existing craniofacial abnormalities (such as a cleft palate) will also increase the probability of ear infection, due to the distorted positioning of the eustachian tube encouraging fluid accumulation.

On the other hand, external ear infections are commonly caused by trauma or abrasions to the external ear canal skin – such as from the use of cotton buds. “That is why we usually advise parents not to attempt to clear their children’s ear wax on their own,” says Dr Teo.

Preventing ear infections

Middle ear infections are harder to prevent, and it is common for a child to have had at least one episode of middle ear infection at before the age of two, says Dr Teo. However, parents can still do their part to reduce risks for their child:

  1. Keep it clean: Keeping your child’s ear dry and protecting the ear canal skin from damage can help prevent external ear infection.

 

  1. Breastfeed your baby: There’s nothing stronger than a mother’s protection. Breast milk contain antibodies, which can help fight off ear infections. To amp up your baby’s immunity, try to breastfeed her for at least the first six months.

 

  1. Refrain from smoking: Being near smokers and second-hand smoke will increase a child’s risk of getting an ear infection.

 

  1. Sit up: When bottle-feeding your baby, hold them in an upright position. Lying down while bottle-feeding may lead to blockage or infection in the ear.

 

  1. Vaccination: Make sure your child is appropriately vaccinated, to guard against conditions such as pneumonia and meningitis, which may lead to ear infections.

 

  1. Fight the cold: Stop a cold before it leads to ear blockage. Give your child oral decongestions or a nasal spray as soon as they exhibit cold symptoms.