Ear infection is one of the most common health problems for young children, especially Aboriginal children. Infection can affect the outer ear, middle ear or inner ear. The most common age for middle ear infections is between six months and two years; by six years, most children have outgrown ear infection. Contrary to popular belief, getting water in the ear, earwax, wind or being cold do not cause an ear infection.
Ear problems include the following:
Inflammation of the middle ear (otitis media)
The middle ear is the small box behind the eardrum. It contains tiny bones and is filled with air. The middle ear is connected to the back of the nose passage by the Eustachian tube. Ear infections are common in children because their Eustachian tube is short and straight. With a cold, sinusitis, throat infection or hay fever, a child’s Eustachian tube often gets blocked, and air cannot get into the middle ear. A sticky fluid collects in the middle ear, and this fluid can get infected by bacteria (middle ear infection). The build-up of fluid and pus causes a pressure which is painful and may cause the eardrum to rupture.
A burst eardrum usually heals without treatment. Most infections are caused by a virus but your doctor may prescribe antibiotics.
Symptoms of middle ear infection
- discharge from ear
- poor hearing
If your child has the symptoms above, see a doctor without delay for assessment. Children with persistent (chronic) or recurrent middle ear infection may develop hearing problems and should have their hearing checked.
Glue ear (persistent fluid in the middle ear)
When middle ear infection occurs, the lining of the middle ear secretes fluid. This is thin at first but may become thick and glue-like. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. He or she will check your child frequently to see that the fluid disappears naturally and that the eardrum moves normally. If not, a tiny tube (grommet) is inserted in the eardrum to let air into the middle ear and drain the fluid. Glue ear should be treated as soon as possible.
Inflammation of the outer ear (otitis externa)
Infection in the outer ear can occur after heavy sweating or swimming, something poked in the ear or a scratch from a dirty fingernail. It can be extremely painful. This infection is sometimes called swimmer’s ear. See your doctor as soon as you can to get treatment with eardrops.
Symptoms of outer ear infection
- itchy ear
- discharge from ear.
Other ear problems
Wax coming from the ear is perfectly normal and healthy, and is the body’s way of clearing dust from the passage. Some people produce more wax than others. The colour can vary from whitish to dark brown. Do not use cotton buds as they may damage the ear and push wax in further. Excess wax sometimes collects in the outer ear and occasionally may need to be removed. It is one of the most common causes of temporary hearing loss. Check with your doctor.
If you suspect that your child has a hearing problem, ask your doctor for a referral for screening (audiology).