Earaches are painful and distressing.
When and where ear pain occurs
Ear pain can occur when your baby is teething, flying in a plane, swimming, or after an illness. Pain can come from the outer or middle ear. Most children have had an ear infection before the age of three but infection is not always the cause.
Structure of the ear supports infection
Babies are at risk of ear infection because the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the throat and nose, is short and straight. This shape makes it easier for bacteria from infections in the nose and throat to travel up into the middle ear.
Infection results in swelling of the Eustachian tube. Swelling causes fluid to become trapped in the middle ear creating a wet, dark, warm environment, perfect for growing bacteria and viruses. Trapped thick infected fluid builds up in the middle ear causing the eardrum to bulge. This condition called Acute Otitis Media is discovered when the doctor looks into the ear canal with an instrument called an Otoscope. If the immune system is strong, inflammation and infection will clear and pressure will be relieved before the eardrum perforates.
Ear infections are not directly contagious but can follow viral or bacterial illness. Regular hand washing is the best defence against the spread of germs. Fever is nature’s way of fighting bacteria so don’t be too quick to give medications to reduce fever; let fever do its work first. Giving fluids, rest, cuddles, and pain relief may be all your baby needs to recover. Even when the drum perforates, fluid drains and it heals quickly on its own.
Glue ear and grommets
If thick fluid doesn’t drain and is constantly in the middle ear it is referred to as Glue ear, a condition, which stops the ear functioning as it should[i] and results in hearing loss and subsequent behaviour and language problems.[ii] To avoid this happening, some babies will be prescribed a course of antibiotics to help clear the infection. Your GP may suggest seeing an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist who may recommend an operation to insert an artificial tube (Grommet) through the eardrum. This tiny tube allows air and fluid to flow freely through the ear. Grommets usually remain in place for about six to 12-months if they don’t fall out earlier.
If your baby suffers more than three or four ear infections a year, a hearing test (by an audiologist) will rule out any hearing loss that can hinder language development.
In-flight earaches occur during take-off and landing due to changes in air pressure within the middle ear. Try reducing your baby’s ear pain by getting her to suck on a dummy, breast or bottle when taking-off and landing. The increased swallowing action may help equalise the air pressure in the Eustachian tube. Medications containing pseudoephedrine (decongestants) that dry inner ear secretions appear to have little effect on in-flight ear pain.
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This article was brought to you by Jan Murray, Private Child Health Consultant who is an internationally renowned expert in her field. Jan encourages parents in the area of infant sleep, nutrition, activities and family balance. Jan publishes regular ezine and blog articles to provide free parenting tips, tools and resources to educate and support those caring for young babies and children.