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What the Experts Say

It's the Season for Ear Infections
By Sally Robinson, M.D. and Keith P. Bly, M.D.

Despite the chilly weather, germs--not falling temperatures--are a parent's worst enemy. Now through March is the most common season for middle ear infections, also known as otitis media.

Middle ear infections are caused by a functional breakdown of a narrow tube, called the eustachian tube, that passes from the back of the throat up into the middle of the ear. When working properly, the eustachian tube allows excess fluid to drain from the middle ear to the throat, keeps air pressure equalized on both sides of the eardrum, and protects the middle ear from germs.

"After a cold, allergy attack or sinus infection, bacteria from the nose or throat can travel through the eustachian tube to the middle ear," said Dr. David McCormick, who has done extensive research on otitis media. "If the tube becomes blocked, fluid builds up in the middle ear cavity and may become infected if bacteria are present."

Symptoms of middle ear infection include pain, fever and irritability. Children too young to describe their earaches may tug at or rub their ears. A course of antibiotics is usually recommended as treatment for the infection. However, physicians need to use caution when prescribing antibiotics for ear infections and many other illnesses as overuse of antibiotics has lead to bacterial resistance. "Instead, a body of research suggests that doctors use antibiotics only if the child has clear-cut signs and symptoms of a bacterial ear infection," said McCormick, professor of pediatrics at UTMB.

Parents can take these steps to help avoid ear infections:

· Breast-feed your baby, if possible. Infants who nurse exclusively for at least first six months of life have less than half as many ear infections as formula-fed babies.

· Keep your baby child upright while feeding, and never put your baby to bed with a bottle. Liquid can back up into the eustachian tube, creating a breeding ground for bacteria.

· Use caution when selecting a day-care center for your child. Keep in mind that infections spread easily among large groups of children. You may want to consider a program with fewer than five children.

· If your child attends day-care, he or she should receive a flu vaccine in the fall before the flu season. This vaccine is available to children as young as 6 months and can prevent some ear infections, which often occur after having the flu.

· Never smoke around a child.

"Numerous parents of children who seek treatment at UTMB are breast-feeding exclusively and are following the other simple recommendations to prevent ear infections," said McCormick. "And many of their babies are healthy now, experiencing few ear infections."

Dr. Sally Robinson is Professor of Pediatrics, and Dr. Keith Bly is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston Children's Hospital. For more information, visit: www.utmb.edu

The information presented on this site is intended solely as a general educational aid, and is neither medical nor healthcare advice for any individual problem, nor a substitute for medical or other professional advice and services from a qualified healthcare provider familiar with your unique circumstances. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare professional regarding any medical condition and before starting any new treatment.

 

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