Diagnosing and Treating Ear Infections

By Kevin Buckwalter, M.D.

As a family practice doctor in Henderson, Nevada, I treat a wide range of health issues in patients of all ages. Ear infections are one of the most common medical issues among children under the age of six. These infections can take many forms, including external otitis or “swimmers ear,” which affects the outer ear and ear canal. When a young child has an outer ear infection, it is identifiable by an earache that becomes more acute when the outer earlobe is moved. While ear discharge is a symptom of external otitis, fever is not, and the condition is generally treatable through antibiotic ear drops.

The most common type of ear infection is otitis media, which involves infection of the middle ear and often results in fluids filling the middle-air space behind the eardrum. Middle ear infections may occur within a week or two of a child experiencing upper respiratory tract infection. If the fluid becomes infected, pain and fever may develop. Symptoms of this condition among infants include irritability, continuous crying, trouble sleeping, and tugging at the ears. Parents who suspect their infant has such an infection should bring the child to a hospital or clinic immediately. The physician will examine the eardrum for redness, pus buildup, and other signifiers of otitis media. While middle ear infections may get better on their own, it is generally best to treat them with an antibiotics regimen. Unfortunately, resistance to antibiotics is growing in the United States. This is particularly true among children who have been prescribed antibiotics recently and those who are exposed to other children who have recently undergone antibiotics treatments. During the recovery phase, keep in mind that it is common for children to retain fluid behind the eardrum for one to three months. Otitis interna, which affects the inner ear, is relatively uncommon. As this part of the ear contains sensory organs essential to hearing and balance, a common symptom of its inflammation is vertigo.

Risk factors for ear infections that parents should be aware of include changes in climate or altitude, pacifier use, recent illnesses, exposure to cigarette smoke, and daycare attendance. Ear infections are most common during the winter months, when the weather is cold. They are also relatively common among infants who spend significant time drinking from sippy cups while lying on their back.

About the Author: A family practice physician, Dr. Kevin Buckwalter completed his M.D. at the Ross University School of Medicine and served his medical residency at the Department of Family Medicine at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

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