The medical term for an ear infection is "otitis media" meaning inflammation of the middle ear. This occurs most often in young children under three and is caused by bacteria or viruses that can be difficult to treat. In young children it is often difficult to determine whether they have an ear infection or not. There are a number of factors that put children at higher risk for an infection, including:
- children who are exposed to second-hand smoke
- children born prematurely
- children with cleft palates
- first nation or inuit children
- children who were not breastfed (they receive live antibodies through mother's milk)
- children who are bottle fed (if they drink milk lying on their backs, it can sometimes drip into their eustachian tube and cause an infection).
Because ear infections most often occur in young children that may not be able to communicate their pain, it can be difficult to know if that is indeed their problem. There are a number of signs to look for however, such as:
- your child has an unexplained fever
- your child is fussier or whinier than usual
- your child is pulling at their ears
Many times a child will pull at their ears and a parent will second guess themselves, however it is nearly impossible to have an ear infection without a fever to follow it (I say this and yet my mom says I would get terrible ear infections with no fever, so there is always the odd case).
So, your child has an ear infection, now what? It used to be that the doctor would write a prescription and that would be that. However, more and more research is proving the negative effects of antibiotics and this is making some doctors a little more wary to prescribe them. Antibiotics can have devastating side effects and for children that have recurring ear infections, they might not be the answer. Antibiotics work to help your body fight an infection. However, if they are given constantly, the bacteria and germs eventually grow resistant to them. They grow stronger, they adapt and learn how to fight the medication off. This means that if/when your child gets a severe infection, that specific antibiotic won't work anymore. There are only so many antibiotics that can be used before the doctor runs out of options. Antibiotic resistance is a dangerous occurrence and one to be avoided as much as possible.
Another side effect can be rotting teeth. Antibiotics are full of sugar! They have been known to cause baby teeth to rot out. My little sister (who is 6) had nearly constant ear infections as a baby. She was almost always on antibiotics and now has caps on her teeth because they are black. Although a prescription might give temporary relief or help your child fight the infection off sooner, the fact is that most ear infections will heal on their own if given the chance. You can use tylenol to help the fever or motrin to keep down the swelling, and most of the time... you can wait it out.
So it comes down to a simple breakdown of steps:
Step 1: Look for the signs and symptoms that your child has a fever
Step 2: Either take your child to the doctor to confirm or give them a few days to see if they can beat it on their own.
Step 3: If their fever persists and they show no sign of improvement or worsen, take them in and see about getting a prescription.
The key is to not always look to antibiotics to fight our battles for us, or for our children. Although it might help in the short-term, it could have severe consequences in the long term. And essentially the long term is what we are concerned about for our children. So the next time your baby starts pulling on his ears and spikes a fever, pull our the infants motrin and wait a few days to see if he can build his immune system and fight it off himself.