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Mayo Clinic Q and A: Understanding ear infections

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Published in Health & Fitness

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: My 4-year-old daughter already has had three ear infections this winter. When she isn't feeling well, our entire family is miserable. The pediatrician says she may continue to get more infections and it is just her body. Why do some kids get ear infections so easily? And is there anything I can do to prevent the infections and help her feel better faster?

ANSWER: Our ears — home to the smallest bones in the body — are amazing organs. They help us hear and experience the world. They also help maintain balance. They are self-cleaning, and the outer part of the ear never stops growing. Yet, as your family has discovered, ear infections can cause pain and discomfort.

Infections can occur in the middle ear, in the air-filled space behind the eardrum that contains the tiny vibrating bones of the ear. Middle ear infections, which are the most common ear infections, are caused by a bacterium or virus that infects fluid that builds up in the middle ear. Ear infections often are a direct result of a common cold, allergy or other upper respiratory illness. These illnesses are more common during the winter months, so ear infections also are most common during this time of the year.

Children are more susceptible to ear infections because of the size of their eustachian tubes. These are narrow channels inside the ears that allow drainage to the back of the nose and prevent fluid in the middle ear from building up. Children's eustachian tubes are shorter, narrower and straighter than those of adults. These tubes can become inflamed or irritated, and then they don't drain appropriately. This results in middle ear fluid building up, which can lead to an ear infection.

Some common signs of an ear infection in children include:

-- Ear pain, especially when lying down.


-- Tugging or pulling on the ear.

-- Trouble sleeping.

-- Hearing difficulty.

-- Headache or fever.


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