The end of summer means back to school -- and back to daycare -- for millions of American children. For many of these children, it also means back to ear infections.
A common ailment
Many children with recurring ear infections require doses of preventive antibiotics or ear tubes to prevent further infections. Without these precautions, children may have delayed speech and language development and may have trouble in school if they miss a lot of class or can't hear the teacher.
"This is the time of year when we start seeing more ear infections, because children are exposed to more bacteria and viruses once they are in school or daycare," says James Hicks, MD, an otolaryngologist with The Austin Diagnostic Clinic. "That's especially true among infants and toddlers in a daycare with four or more other children." Hicks notes that ear infections have been on the rise in recent years. The number of ear infections reported in children rose by 44 percent during the 1980s. Doctors believe this is largely because most parents work outside the home and put their children in daycare. Children who have multiple ear infections at a young age are more likely to continue having them.
"The problem for many children is that they go right from one ear infection to another. It can take several months for fluid in the middle ear to clear up, and during that time, children are susceptible to follow up infections," he says. "Children with recurrent ear infections tend to develop speech and language skills more slowly because their hearing is affected. However, permanent hearing loss rarely occurs because of ear infections."
Most parents are familiar with the symptoms of ear infections -- fever, irritability and fussiness, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, and tugging on the ears. Acetaminophen (Tylenol) or a similar pain medication can ease the symptoms until the child sees a doctor. Since about 85 percent of ear infections are caused by bacteria, doctors usually prescribe an antibiotic that will kill the bacteria within a week. It is important for parents to continue using the medication as prescribed even if the child feels better. "One of the most common reasons for repeat infections is that parents stopped giving the antibiotic too soon," he says.
Other important steps include breastfeeding instead of bottle-feeding and not exposing children to cigarette smoke. "These precautions are no guarantee that a child won't ever get an ear infection, but they should limit the number and severity of infections," he says.
Risk factors for ear infections