Ear infections are quite common in children. In fact, 60 to 80% of kids have an ear infection before their first birthday, and some 90% of children will have an ear infection before their third. Statistics show ear infections are the number one reason parents take their children to the doctor. How do you spot an inner ear infection in children? What do you do if you suspect your child has an inner ear infection? Are they preventable? Let’s get your questions answered.
What Is An Inner Ear Infection?
The ear can be divided into three sections – outer, middle, and inner ear. The inner ear is the innermost section containing fluid-filled semicircular canals, cochlea, and the vestibular and auditory nerves. The vestibular system has an extensive role in balance, posture, motion, and orientation. When the inner ear isn’t functioning up to speed, it becomes very difficult to keep objects in focus as the body moves.
Children are more prone to ear infections because their tiny, narrow eustachian tubes are easily blocked and can’t drain fluid as efficiently as those of an adult. Their immune systems are not fully developed yet and that leaves them more prone to infections, viruses, colds, and flu.
Outer ear infections typically occur from the ear canal staying moist, which invites bacterial growth. Inner ear infections are less common than middle ear infections, but both typically occur with, or after, an upper respiratory virus or bacterial infection.
In most cases, an inner ear infection is actually inflammation and irritation resulting from allergies, viruses, or an upper respiratory illness, but in rare cases, it can be a true infection from bacteria. While the inner infection itself isn’t contagious, any drainage with virus or bacteria content can be contagious. Common viruses associated with inner ear infections include Epstein-Barr, RSV, and influenza.
Spotting An Inner Infection In Children
In some cases, an inner ear infection involves mild inflammation that only lasts a few days, and the child will usually exhibit few, if any, symptoms. Other times, the symptoms will appear quickly and dramatically, and may include:
- Ear pain
- A full or cloudy sensation within the ear
- Hearing loss or muffled hearing
- Ringing in the ears
- Nausea and vomiting
- Unsteady gait or balance
The main distinguishing features of an inner versus other ear infections is that middle and outer ear infections typically don’t cause nausea, vomiting, and balance disturbances.
In non-verbal children, it’s important to look for behavioral and physical changes since the child can’t voice the source of their discomfort. Pay close attention for the following:
- Ear drainage
- Ear pulling or rubbing
- Prolonged crying that can’t be soothed with usual methods
- Trouble sleeping
- Loss of appetite
- Fever above 100 F
- Adenoid swelling
How To Handle An Ear Infection In Children
While most ear infections don’t cause long-term complications and resolve within two weeks, even when treated promptly, severe infections can cause a number of serious side effects, including:
- Speech and developmental delays
- Tearing and rupturing of the eardrum
- Permanent structural damage – hearing loss
So, it’s important to see your pediatrician for an examination to determine if an ear infection is present and how severe it may be. If symptoms persist over 24 hours or your child is younger than 12 months, schedule an appointment. Don’t even wait 24 hours if you note drainage, high fever, or respiratory difficulties.
In minor cases, it’s still advisable to give your pediatrician a call before trying at-home remedies that could possibly worsen the symptoms.
Your pediatrician will use an otoscope to painlessly examine your child’s ears and look for signs of infection and inflammation. A pneumatic otoscope may be used to check for fluid; this instrument blows a puff of air into the ear canal. It may be starling, but it’s not painful. Tympanometry is another painless diagnostic tool your pediatrician may use; it uses sound and pressure to measure eardrum flexibility.
Depending on what we find during your visit, we may recommend OTC pain relievers with anti-inflammation and fever-reducing properties, such as ibuprofen. If determined to be caused by an infection, not a virus, we may also likely start your child on a broad-spectrum antibiotic.
While your child may feel better within a few days, it’s very important to complete the prescribed medications as directed to prevent relapses. It’s also important to keep any follow up appointments to see how inflammation and fluid is dispersing. It may take up to six weeks for it to completely subside.
Can Inner Ear Infections Be Prevented?
Yes and no. Lifestyle choices and ear anatomy can make some children more prone to ear infections than others. However, there are some risk factors that you can avoid to help lessen the likelihood of childhood ear infections, including:
- Taking the recommended vaccines, especially the flu and pneumococcal vaccines.
- Germ mitigation – frequent hand washing, not sharing food and drinks, avoiding sick relatives and playmates, etc.
- For bottle-fed and sip-cup kids, never put the children down for naps or bedtime with drinks.
- Promptly address seasonal allergies with your pediatrician.
- Reduce indoor air pollutants like tobacco smoke and VOCs.
- Avoid prolonged group daycare settings, when possible.
Do You Suspect Your Child Has An Inner Ear Infection?
Parents know how quickly minor issues can turn disastrous in children. Ear infections are the most common type of childhood infection. To avoid serious health implications, it’s important to understand what an it entails, when and how to diagnose and treat it, and ways to mitigate the risks. If you suspect your child has an inner ear infection, give us a call now. We are accepting appointments and are taking strong precautions to keep our patients safe during their visits.