Ear infections in children are common from around 6 months. They are often brought on by a cold but can be caused by any viral or bacterial infection. Infection leads to inflammation of the middle ear, a condition known as otitis media. As the ear infection progresses, this can lead to a build up of fluid behind the eardrum, commonly known as glue ear (secretory otitis media, or otitis media with effusion). In some cases, the eardrum can actually perforate or burst, which releases the pressure.
Treatment for ear infections in children is readily available within the NHS but if you want a full assessment of the impact of any infection on your child’s hearing, or to get glue ear or other complications treated more rapidly, private hospitals and clinics offer the full range of assessments and treatments that may be necessary.
What are the symptoms of ear infections in children?
The main symptoms of ear infections in children are earache and loss of hearing. Other symptoms include fever and a discharge from the ear if the ear drum has burst. Your child will feel generally unwell, causing them to be upset and fractious and infants often tug at their ear while crying.
What are the complications of ear infections in children?
The most common complication of ear infections in children is hearing loss. This is usually mild and short-lived, but in some cases can persist for several months. Rarely, ear infections in children can lead to permanent hearing loss, which can affect speech, social and educational development if left untreated.
Complications of ear infections in children can include:
How are ear infections in children diagnosed?
As well as symptoms and medical history, diagnosis involves assessments including:
Otoscopy: an otoscope can be used to view the eardrum and detect fluid behind the eardrum
Audiometry: a test of hearing across a range of frequencies to determine the degree of hearing loss
Tympanometry: an assessment of the way the eardrum reacts to sound
How are ear infections in children treated?
Around 50% of ear infections in children clear up on their own within 3 months, and so painkillers are often the only treatment needed. However, in persistent infections, further treatment may be needed. Antibiotics may be given if the ear infection does not clear up itself in the expected timeframe, or may be given straight away in more severe cases, younger children and babies, if both ears are affected, or if the eardrum is perforated. However, antibiotics can cause side-effects and will not help if the ear infection is viral.
In frequently recurring ear infections in children, a private paediatric ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist may perform autoinflation – a technique where a tube and small balloon (a device called an Otovent) is used to keep the Eustachian tubes open.
In some cases, surgery may be needed to remove the fluid from the ear (via a small cut in the eardrum), with grommets – tiny tubes placed in the eardrum– being inserted (for around a year) to allow near-normal hearing and prevent another build up of fluid. An adenoidectomy (removal of the glands at the back of the nose) may also be needed.
Other conditions treated by private paediatric ENT specialists include hearing loss, sleep apnoea and snoring, recurrent tonsillitis, nose and sinus problems and prominent ears.