Why Do Children Have Earaches

To understand earaches you must first know about the Eustachian tube, a narrow channel connecting the inside of the ear to the back of the throat, just above the soft palate. The tube allows drainage — preventing fluid in the middle ear from building up and bursting the thin ear drum. In a healthy ear, the fluid drains down the tube, assisted by tiny hair cells, and is swallowed.

The tube maintains middle ear pressure equal to the air outside the ear, enabling free eardrum movement. Normally, the tube is collapsed most of the time in order to protect the middle ear from the many germs residing in the nose and mouth. Infection occurs when the Eustachian tube fails to do its job. When the tube becomes partially blocked, fluid accumulates in the middle ear, trapping bacteria already present, which then multiply. Additionally, as the air in the middle ear space escapes into the bloodstream, a partial vacuum is formed that absorbs more bacteria from the nose and mouth into the ear.

Why do children have more ear infections than adults?

Children have Eustachian tubes that are shorter, more horizontal, and straighter than those of adults. These factors make the journey for the bacteria quick and relatively easy. A child’s tube is also floppier, with a smaller opening that easily clogs.

Inflammation of the middle ear is known as otitis media. When infection occurs, the condition is called “acute otitis media.” Acute otitis media occurs when a cold, allergy or upper respiratory infection, and the presence of bacteria or viruses lead to the accumulation of pus and mucus behind the eardrum, blocking the Eustachian tube.

When fluid forms in the middle ear, the condition is known as “otitis media.” which can occur with or without infection. This fluid can remain in the ear for weeks to many months. When infected fluid persists or repeatedly returns, this is sometimes called chronic middle ear infection. If not treated, chronic ear infections have potentially serious consequences such as temporary or permanent hearing loss.

How are recurrent acute otitis media and otitis media with effusion treated?

Some child care advocates suggest doing nothing or administering antibiotics to treat the infection. More than 30 million prescriptions are written each year for ear infections, accounting for 25 percent of all antibiotics prescribed in the United States. However, antibiotics are not effective against viral ear infections (30 to 50 percent of such disorders), may cause uncomfortable side effects such as upset stomach, and can contribute to antibiotic resistance. Medical researchers believe that 25 percent of all pneumococcus strains, the most common bacterial cause of ear infections, are resistant to penicillin, and ten to 20 percent are resistant to amoxicillin.

Is surgery effective against recurrent otitis media and otitis media with effusion?

In some cases, surgery may be the only effective treatment for chronic ear infections (see Ear Tubes).