Colds and flu can lead to ear infection
By: Dan Palmquist, M.D.
It’s the colds and flu season, but viruses caused by the common cold are affecting our health as well. And just like there can be secondary infections with the flu, a cold can lead to complications, one of the most common being an ear infection.
The latest research indicated that when young children get colds, they end up with an ear infection more than half the time. In fact, a middle ear infection is the most commonly diagnosed bacterial infection in children under age seven.
It used to be that diagnosis of an ear infection meant treatment with prescription antibiotic. This is not always the case. Research shows that in most cases a child’s immune system is able to fight the ear infection on its own, without antibiotics. The American Academy of Pediatrics encourages home treatment including rest, over-the-counter pain relievers (such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen – do not give aspirin to children under 16) and using a warm washcloth or heating pad on the ear for the first 48 hours. Eardrops can provide pain relief, but check with your doctor before administering.
If ear pain has not diminished after 48 hours, if your child has a fever over 101 degrees Fahrenheit or if your child is under the age of two, consult your primary care physician regarding treatment. If left untreated, ear infections can result in long-term complications such as scarring or the eardrum, hearing loss, speech and language development problems and meningitis.
Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat certain ear infections. You will want to discuss the pros and cons of this with your physician.
Ear infections occur when the Eustachian tube (the small tube that connects your ear and throat) becomes swollen and irritated. Mucus lines the Eustachian, as well as the nose and throat. Fluid from the middle ear drains out through it into the nasal passages. When a child has a cold, the nose and Eustachian tube become blocked, fluid builds up in the middle ear and an infection often occurs.
Symptoms of ear infection include a sudden piercing pain that may be worse when lying down. This can make it difficult for a child with an ear infection to sleep. Other symptoms include: trouble hearing, a fever, loss of balance and loss of appetite. Babies may tug at their ears and seem fussy. They may not want to drink from a bottle, because the pressure in their middle ear makes it painful to swallow.
You may see a thick, yellow fluid draining from one or both ears. This occurs when the pressure from the fluid causes the eardrum to burst, releasing the fluid that was trapped within it. While this sounds serious, it is not. In fact, it usually relieves the pressure and the pain. Often, the eardrum heals on its own within a couple of weeks.
There are certain things you can do to prevent ear infections. The first is using consistent infection control practices – such as washing your hands, sneezing into your arm and keeping your fingers away from your face. These habits help avoid colds and the flu, which can both lead to ear infection. Other ways to ward off ear infections: don’t smoke. Ear infections happen more often to children who are around second-hand smoke. If your child uses a bottle, do not let him or her lie flat while drinking.
A small percentage of children suffer from chronic ear infections. In these cases your doctor may recommend treatment involving ear tubes inserted through the eardrum to keep the ear free from fluid and infection. The tubes typically remain in the ears for eight to 18 months and usually fall out on their own.
It’s the colds and flu season, and with colds and flu can come other ailments, including ear infections. Avoid ear infection – and colds and the flu -- by adopting consistent infection control practices. If you or your child does become ill with an earache, you can try treating it at home. If the pain lasts more than 48 hours, if your child is under two or has a fever of 101 degrees Fahrenheit, contact your health care provider about treatment options.
Dr. Palmquist is a board certified family practice physician at Raiter Clinic.