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Ear infections (otitis media): the most common childhood illness


Ear infection: a common condition with very young children

Ear infections are the most common diseases in infants and children under three years old, although adults can sometimes experience them as well. Generally the infection affects the middle ear, and hence it is called otitis media.  

Before going into the details of ear infections (particularly otitis media), it may be helpful to recall what the middle ear is and how it works. The middle ear is an air-filled cavity lying behind the eardrum (tympanic membrane) and containing the three ear bones or ossicles. The main function of the middle ear is to transmit the sound energy that reaches the eardrum, through the ear ossicles, to the inner ear, which in turn transforms sound waves into electrical signals that are transmitted to the brain and then perceived as sounds.

The middle ear also contains the opening of the Eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the nose and plays a critical role in controlling and regulating air pressure inside the middle ear chamber. It is just through the Eustachian tube that nasal infections (such as flu or a cold) can spread to the middle ear, leading to otitis media.

 Therefore otitis media in children, as well as in adults, most often develops as a result of bacterial or viral infections affecting the upper respiratory airways, namely the nose and the throat. After infection, the middle ear fills with fluid (mucous or pus) and this can cause hearing problems, as well as discomfort and pain in the ear.

Symptoms that may occur when suffering from ear infection

It is not easy to detect otitis media in younger children who have not developed language skills to express the pain or discomfort they are feeling. However, there are certain signs and symptoms that can indicate the presence of a ear infection. These include fever, difficulty sleeping, tugging or pulling ears, fluid draining from the ear, balance difficulties and hearing problems. When these signs are present, it is advisable to take the child to the doctor to confirm the suspicion of ear infection, which is generally diagnosed through a medical device called otoscope. 

Otitis treatment*

When otitis media does not resolve by itself (as it is often the case), most doctors recommend the use of antibiotics to kill the bacteria responsible for the infection, and sometimes analgesics to relieve pain. It is important to remember that fluid may remain inside the middle ear for months after the infection has cleared, and hence hearing problems can persist for some time. However, if properly treated, otitis media does not lead to permanent hearing loss.

 On the contrary, when left untreated, otitis media can lead to serious complications involving hearing function (permanent hearing impairment or loss), which in turn can lead to language and speech disabilities in younger children.

 Since the treatment of otitis media in children may be costly, especially when otitis occurs more than one time in a year, it is advisable to have it covered with an appropriate international health insurance plan.


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*Always seek professional medical advise from a qualified doctor before undergoing any treatment.