Fluid in the ear is not a problem only because of temporary hearing loss. It also often results in repeated bouts of ear infections, which cause children and their parents a lot of pain and anxiety. A child with recurrent ear infections is defined as one who has had three infections in the past six months or four infections in the past year. When I have patients with this problem, I recommend putting them on preventive, or prophylactic, antibiotics. This is a low-dose antibiotic taken every day for three to four months (once the latest infection has been treated with a regular round of antibiotics) to get them through the cold and flu season. This should prevent further infections and gives the middle ear a chance to reabsorb any remaining fluid. If a child continues to get ear infections despite taking prophylactic antibiotics, that also makes a case for putting tubes in his eardrums.
Fortunately, most children avoid these serious consequences. And although ear infections are troubling for both parents and kids, there's a lot that can be done to fight and treat them.
Anne Beal, MD, is coauthor of The Black Parenting Book: Caring for Our Children in the First Five Years (Broadway Books, 1998).
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