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Photo of a toddler holding her ears in painAsk a nurse
Ear infections
How to reduce your child's risk of
getting one
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Diana Doyle-Zebrun
Nov/Dec 2017

Have you ever wondered why infants and toddlers seem more likely to get ear infections during the fall and winter months?

As it turns out, there is a perfectly good reason why children between six months and three years of age are more prone to ear infections at this time of year. There are also some steps you can take to help protect your child from developing one.

Before I get into the helpful tips, let's explore why young children tend to be more vulnerable than adults to ear infections in the first place.

The source of the problem is the eustachian tube, the canal that connects the back of the throat to the middle ear area, right behind the eardrum. As you might expect, a child's eustachian tubes are much shorter than those of an adult. Bacterial and viral infections are usually more common during this time of year, and when a young child catches one, it is much easier for the germs to travel from the back of throat to the middle ear via the eustachian tubes.

That's when the real trouble begins.

Once a child has an ear infection, he or she will experience a range of symptoms, including pain, fever, difficulty sleeping, balance issues and trouble hearing quiet sounds. They can also leak fluid from the ear. While all young children are susceptible to ear infections, some are more at risk than others. For example, babies who drink from a bottle or cup while lying too flat are prone to ear infections. So are children exposed to cigarette smoke, have allergies or attend daycare (daycares tend to have lot of kids who can easily spread colds). Breastfed babies are less at risk because they have antibodies passed on from the mother that help fight infections.

If your child has an ear infection, it's a good idea to take him or her to your health-care provider if symptoms such as pain and fever are severe, or last over 24 hours, or if your infant is under six months of age or remains fussy and irritable after a respiratory infection such as a cold or flu. You should always see a health-care provider if you see a discharge of fluid, pus or bloody liquid from the ear.

Once there, you and your child's health-care provider will determine the best course of treatment. If your child is moderately to severely ill with a high fever over 39 C, the health-care provider may suggest antibiotics. If the symptoms are not severe, you may be asked to monitor your child for 48 to 72 hours to see if the ear infection goes away without antibiotics.

It is important to remember that your child's health-care provider will only prescribe an antibiotic if the ear infection seems to be caused by a bacterial infection rather than a virus.

Antibiotics are effective against infections caused by bacteria such as pneumococcus or haemophilus influenza, but useless against viral infections like those caused by a cold or the flu.

Antibiotics should not be prescribed unnecessarily because doing so can cause bacteria to become resistant and promote the development of "super bugs." Giving your child an antibiotic they don't need can also cause other problems, such as an allergic reaction, rash, or upset stomach.

As noted earlier, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of your child developing an ear infection. They are:

  • Make sure everyone in your family over the age of six months gets a flu shot. In addition, pneumococcal shots are recommended for children at two months of age. These vaccinations will help protect you and your family against influenza and pneumococcal (pneumonia, meningitis) viruses, which can cause ear infections.
  • Practise good hand hygiene: Germs are often spread by physical contact. Washing your hands, and your children's hands, will help limit the spread of germs and reduce the odds of becoming infected by a cold or flu virus.

One more word of advice: If your child is complaining of a sore ear and you're not sure what do, don't hesitate to call Health Links-Info Santé. Nurses are available to answer your questions at any time of the day or night simply by calling 204-788-8200 or toll-free at 1-888-315-9257.

Diana Doyle-Zebrun is a registered nurse and Clinical and Quality Initiatives Manager at Health Links - Info Santé, a telephone health information service with the Provincial Health Contact Centre at Misericordia Health Centre. This article was originally published in the Winnipeg Free Press on Friday, October 27, 2017.