Ear infections are very common in young children. How do we know when an earache is an ear infection and needs treatment?
Sarah Hunstead of CPR Kids explains that generally, they can be divided into middle ear infections and outer ear infections.
Listen to Sarah on Kinderling Conversation:
Middle ear infection
These are the common ones in young children, says Sarah.
“Their tubes that connect their middle ear to their throat are quite small, and so when a child’s got a cold or a viral infection, it’s a lot easier for the germs and viruses to travel up the ear canals and they can end up with an infection.”
The pain a child experiences during a middle ear infection is horrendous, and Sarah know because she experienced it herself! It’s a debilitating pain, all-consuming and excruciating.
Her daughter experiences them and describes that at first her ears just feel blocked, and that’s why she might not be able to hear as well. Then it feels like somebody was trying to put a really really hot chopstick into her ear and all over her brain.
“With a middle ear infection, what you’d expect to see would be that they’re in a lot of pain, they may complain of pressure, you may see some pus once that’s been released as well.”
Sometimes the eardrum (a membrane that helps us to hear) perforates, or bursts, giving instant pain relief.
“When the ear drum bursts, it will heal itself again but it can be scarred. And with a lot of scarring, that can reduce our hearing as we get older,” says Sarah. “Certainly not all ear infections are going to cause scarring.”
Unfortunately, there’s no real way to prevent them, as kids get colds. If they’re prone to inner ear infections, they can get them several times a year.
Outer ear infection
“With an outer ear infection, what you might see is the ear itself may be quite red and swollen, they may have discharge from the ear and they may even have pain around their face as well,” says Sarah.
There are many different ways that a child can contract an outer ear infection. Small or oddly shaped ear canals might mean it doesn’t drain properly, or it could be that the water they’re swimming in isn’t so clean. Sticky fingers in ears and scratching don’t help either. Often it’s a case of it being a moist environment, where opportunistic bacteria have set up camp, as Sarah says.
No matter the cause, Sarah believes it’s most important to identify what’s happened and seek medical help. Go to your paediatrician and listen to what they have to say about specifically what your child needs for their ears, since every child is different.
Sometimes young children can’t articulate to you what hurts. Look for the signs of an ear infection. They could be miserable, inconsolable, pulling at their ears, you may see some discharge and some swelling to the outer ear, a fever or a concurrent cold.
At home, start by relieving the pain – give them oral angesia, paracetamol, ibuprofen, whatever you normally would. Sarah discourages putting olive oil in the ear, because when you take them to the doctor, they can’t see what’s going on in there. A nice warm compress over the outside of the ear can help with the pain too.
Treatment is different for both kinds of ear infection, which is why we need to see a doctor, especially if they’re unwell and combined with a fever.
Overall though, “the thing is to know, is that you don’t need to diagnose whether it’s a middle ear or an outer ear,” says Sarah. “It’s about taking them to the doctor but also understanding that not all middle ear infections need treatment with antibiotics.”
“Now what we know is that there are lots of viruses that cause middle ear infections and we know that antibiotics don’t help viruses.”
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