What Is an Ear Infection?
Ear infections are the most common reason children are brought to a pediatrician's office, and they're a frequent source of questions from parents: How do I know if my child has an ear infection? What causes them? And, especially, how can I prevent them? Parents have also heard about new vaccines or advances in treatment and want to know what's best for their child. Here's a primer on preventing and treating this notorious ailment.
An ear infection, also called otitis media, is specifically an infection of the middle ear -- the part that contains tiny bones that transmit sound from the eardrum to the inner ear. The middle ear also produces secretions, which normally drain to the back of the throat through the eustachian tube.
However, if the fluid doesn't drain and builds up in the middle ear, it creates a warm, moist environment where germs love to grow. Invading bacteria or viruses thrive and result in the pain, crankiness, and fever that signal to parents that their child has an ear infection.
Anatomy is the main reason little ones are afflicted with ear troubles. The eustachian tubes of children are angled less steeply than those of adults, which makes it harder for fluid to drain from the middle ear. And their tubes are also shorter, which makes it easier for germs in the throat to work their way up into the middle ear. The muscles that open the tube and allow fluid to drain (this is what you flex when swallowing to relieve ear pressure) are also not as well developed in babies and toddlers. Plus, young children have less mature immune systems, so they can't fight off infections as well as adults can. As a result, they're more susceptible to the upper respiratory infections (colds and flus) that can lead to ear infections.