The most common illnesses among infants and young children are ear infections. Young children have smaller Eustachian tubes—the small tube that connect the ear to the throat—than adults, which makes it easier for fluid to become trapped in the ear leading to an infection when germs grow. Adults may also be prone to ear infections after suffering from upper respiratory infections such as the common cold.
What Causes Ear Infections?
When the Eustachian tube is functioning properly, it will drain fluid and ventilate the space in the middle ear. These functions prevent infection and ensure proper regulation of the middle ear space pressure in relation to ambient air pressure. When the Eustachian tube is blocked due to an upper respiratory infection, for example, there is a higher potential for the buildup of fluid. Allergies, extra saliva or mucus production during teething, sinus infections, overgrown or infected adenoids, or environmental irritants such as tobacco can also cause the Eustachian tube to swell or become blocked.
Is an Ear Infection Contagious?
Ear infections cannot be passed from one person to the next. That being said, illnesses such as the common cold can be passed along, which may indirectly lead to an ear infection. This is another reason why children are more susceptible to ear infections, especially during the winter months when they are in close proximity with other children in closed environments (school or daycare).
There are a variety of risk factors that may make you more or less susceptible to ear infections. These include:
- Seasonal factors – If you are allergic to pollen, then there will be certain times of year when you are congested, which puts you at higher risk. In the fall and winter, when people are more susceptible to colds and flu, ear infections become much more common among both children and adults.
- Age – As mentioned, infants and young children are at higher risk due to the shape and size of their Eustachian tubes. Children between 6 months and 2 years of age are also more susceptible because their immune systems are not yet fully developed.
- Feeding habits – Children who use bottles instead of being breastfed, and who rely on a pacifier, are at higher risk for ear infections.
- Exposure to groups of people – Children in daycare or other group child care are more susceptible to infectious illnesses such as colds, which can lead to ear infections. Adults who work in closed environments with many other people are also at higher risk.
- Air quality – Individuals who are regularly exposed to tobacco smoke or environmental pollution are at higher risk of developing ear infections.
- Recent illness – While illnesses that cause the Eustachian tubes to become blocked will put you at higher risk for ear infection, any other type of illness will also increase your risk since your body’s response to infection will be reduced as a result.
The methods used to treat an ear infection will depend on the underlying cause of the condition. In many cases, simple home remedies will be enough to resolve the problem. If the problem persists, an ear, nose and throat doctor will perform an exam to find out what the root cause is. Since ear infections can be painful, the first line of treatment will be to relieve the pain, followed by the most effective treatment plan. A persistent ear infection may result in perforation or tearing of the eardrum, which will require a more aggressive treatment approach. It is important to continually monitor your progress or your child’s progress, and to contact your doctor if the condition does not improve or becomes worse.