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When Your Child’s Ear Infection Means It’s Time to See an ENT

Posted 2/17/2017 by UHBlog

Are persistent ear infections causing problems for your child? Talk to us.

When Your Child's Ear Infection Means It's Time to See an ENT

Painful and irritating, ear infections are the most common reason children are brought to a pediatrician’s office each year. Depending on the diagnosis, doctors are likely to either send your child away with a prescription for an oral antibiotic or give you advice on how to lessen the pain without drugs.

But if your child has had three diagnosed ear infections within a six-month period – or four diagnosed within a year – it’s time to see an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor, known as a pediatric otolaryngologist, for an evaluation.

“If a child has had three to four ear infections, that means they’ve been through three to four courses of antibiotics,” says Jay Shah, MD, a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist. “The more antibiotics they take, the higher the chances are that they will develop a resistance to the drug. We want to decrease the amount of antibiotics kids are on.”

According to Dr. Shah says, symptoms of an ear infection generally include:

  • Fussiness or discomfort
  • Ear pain (infants often tug at their ear when they're feeling ear discomfort)
  • Fever
  • Ear drainage
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Balance problems

At the appointment, ENT doctors will seek to determine the severity of the ear problems.

“We’re looking to learn how frequently they’ve occurred and what the symptoms are, such as, is the ear infection always accompanied by a fever or excessive fussiness? Are the parents concerned about any hearing or speech impairments?” says Dr. Shah.

Your ENT doctor will also refer to your pediatrician’s notes.

“We want to know what the practitioner saw,” he says. “Was the ear red? Was there pus behind the ear drums?”

These questions will help determine whether or not your ENT doctor will recommend putting tubes – which are small dumbbell-shaped drainage devices – in your child’s ear. Ear tubes may help prevent future infections and the build-up of fluid in the middle ear.

“We want to make their (your child's) quality of life better,” Dr. Shah says.

Rarely, untreated ear infections can lead to serious medical complications, like hearing loss, meningitis and facial paralysis.

If your doctor recommends ear tube surgery for your child, know that he is in good company. Each year, over 700,000 children have ear tubes placed. The 10- to 15-minute surgery is done under very brief anesthesia, and most kids recover within the day, Dr. Shah says. The tubes last on average 6-18 months and fall out on their own. Most times kids don’t even notice they’re there.

“A lot of parents worry, 'Can my kids bathe afterwards? Can they swim without plugs?' The answer to both is yes,” he says. “Their ears are completely fine.”

The good news is that, with or without ear tubes, ear infections tend to peter out by a child’s third birthday. This is due partly to changes in the shape and size of children’s eustachian tube – the part of the ear that equalizes pressure – and partly due to the fact that at 3, toddlers age out of daycare, which can be festering grounds for viruses. But in either case, it gives both anxious parents, and hurting kids, a date to look forward to.

Jay Shah, MD is a pediatric otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) at University Hospitals Rainbow Babies & Children’s Hospital. You can request an appointment with Dr. Shah or any other doctor online.

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