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Little Pitchers Have Infected Ears

Little ones seem to get ear infections so much more readily than grownups, and for good reasons, explains Dr. Joseph Haddad, head of the pediatric ear, nose and throat program at Columbia University.

One reason that babies and young children are prone to ear infections, says Dr. Haddad, is that they get a lot of colds. Another reason is how children's Eustachian tubes are formed. (Eustachian tubes connect the middle ear to the back of the throat and nose.) In children, these tubes are not as long as those of adults, and they are more horizontal. Therefore, when a child has a cold, the tubes can swell up and prevent fluids caught in the middle ear from escaping. That results in a painful infection.

Dr. Haddad says that ear infections in babies and young children aren't always so easy to spot. He explains, "Unlike adults, children can't always verbalize what is bothering them. Just because a child is pulling at their ear doesn't mean they have an ear infection. A child with an ear infection will often exhibit symptoms similar to a cold, such as fever, loss of appetite and sleeplessness. However, a child with an ear infection is often more irritable, because the pressure on the eardrum can be very painful."

If you think your child has an ear infection, it's a good idea to take the child to the doctor, who can use an instrument called an otoscope to examine the child's middle ear for signs of infection.

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Among risk factors: Children who have parents who smoke are more likely to develop ear infections, and children with allergies have Eustachian tubes that are more likely to get infected. Also, children who are in day care are exposed to more colds and viruses.

Although no one is sure why this is so, girls get fewer ear infections than boys. Also, children who breast feed are less likely to get ear infections, because they are getting their mothers' antibodies, which means they are less likely to pick up a cold or infection.

To get rid of an ear infection, the first line of defense is an antibiotic. Dr. Haddad stresses that it's very important that the child finish all the medication that is prescribed. "If you stop an anti-biotic too soon," he explains, "the bacteria won't die and, in some cases, can worsen. We also prescribe acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease the pain. Another way to help ease the pain is to place a warm towel over the ear."

Ear tubes are sometimes prescribed for children with persistent ear infections.

Says the doctor, "Tubes are prescribed because they prevent further infections and clear away fluids that are linked to hearing loss. It was thought that implanting ear tubes would improve a child's speech and learning development.

"In a study that came out last year, researchers compared two groups of toddlers: those who got implants at three months and those who waited nine months before having the tubes inserted. However, doctors saw no developmental differences between the groups at age 3."

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