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Common childhood ear problems

The ears are very delicate structures, especially in children. Here's an overview of the most common problems that affect children's ears:

Ear infections

Ear infections, also called otitis media, are an incredibly common childhood malady. In fact, otitis media is the most frequently diagnosed issue in infants and children. By their third birthday, at least 75 percent of children have had at least one ear infection, and half of them will have three or more ear infections by the age of three. There are three different types of ear infections:

ear conditions in childrenAcute otitis media

This is the most common type of ear infection. It is usually painful because parts of the middle ear are swollen and infected, and fluid is trapped behind the eardrum. Symptoms include fever and possibly puss in the ear. Infants and children with acute otitis media often pull on their ears. It can be treated with antibiotics because it's usually caused by bacteria, not a virus, although it can be a complication from a virus.

Otitis media with effusion

This type of ear infection is very common, and it is caused by the buildup of fluid in the middle ear. It often happens after an ear infection has run its course. Most of the time, children will not have pain, but a doctor will be able to see the fluid behind the eardrum. Otitis media with effusion usually goes away on its own, and antibiotics won't be effective. It's common to have with allergies, when exposed to irritants like cigarette smoke and viral upper respiratory infections.

Otitis externa (swimmer's ear)

Otitis externa, often called swimmer's ear, is an infection of the outer ear canal. Antibiotics are usually needed to treat it, and it is often painful, red, swollen and/or itchy. Sometimes pus can drain from the ear.

Hearing loss

Hearing loss affects two or three out of every 1,000 children. Worldwide, this amounts to 32 million children who are deaf or hard of hearing. There are two main categories of hearing loss in children: congenital and acquired.

Congenital hearing loss

Congenital hearing loss means that children were born with it. There are many potential causes of congenital hearing loss, both hereditary and others, including:

  • Family history of hearing loss
  • Genetic syndromes, like Usher, Treacher Collins and Down syndromes
  • Complications during birth, including low birth weight, lack of oxygen and prematurity
  • Mother has infection, like toxoplasmosis, rubella, herpes, cytomegolavirus or German measles
  • A brain or nervous system disorder
  • Maternal diabetes

Acquired hearing loss

Other times, hearing loss is not present at birth but can develop later. Acquired hearing loss can result from:

  • Chronic or untreated middle-ear infections
  • Mumps, measles, meningitis or whooping cough
  • Encephalitis
  • Chicken pox
  • Influenza
  • A perforated ear drum
  • Serious head injury
  • Meniere's disease or otosclerosis
  • Exposure to loud noises, either one time or excessively
  • Ototoxic medications

Thankfully, hearing loss in young children is often temporary. It could be caused by middle-ear infections (otits media) or earwax buildup. Still, if your child is showing signs of hearing loss, it's important to take him or her to your pediatrician or an audiologist to have the cause of hearing loss checked.

Objects in the ear

Infants and young children are very curious - they like to put things in their ears, nose or mouth that don't belong there. If a child in your care puts something small like a bead in his or her ear, don't panic, but also don't try to remove it yourself. Visit your pediatrician who may be able to remove it, or he or she will refer you to an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist. Health care professionals and hospitals are equipped with suctioning devices for this exact reason.

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