When a child suffers from ear infections, the winter season is a constant battlefront.

LIKE ASTHMA, EAR infections are more frequent in the winter months because they stem from common cold viruses. Ears become infected when a cold virus spreads to the Eustachian tubes, causing pressure and swelling.

Symptoms

How can you tell if a child has an ear infection?

  • Babies pull at their ears and may be crankier when feeding, because swallowing hurts.
  • Verbal kids will complain of ear pain.
  • Hearing becomes less acute.
  • Fevers ranging from 100°F to 104°F will often accompany other symptoms.

Treatment

If a child has an ear infection, how should he be treated? According to Dr. Don Respler, director of pediatric otolaryngology at the University of Medicine and Dentistry in Newark, New Jersey, this depends on the frequency of the problem. In the case of an isolated infection, the standard treatment is antibiotics, which vary in the duration and frequency with which they need to be taken. But for optimal effectiveness, the full dosage must be completed.

It's worth noting, however, that there are now antibiotics that need to be taken only once a day for five days. Research has borne out that simplifying the dosage improves treatment. Dr. Respler explains: "Studies show that the less often you have to give medication, the better the compliance."

Another noteworthy change in approach to isolated ear infections, Dr. Respler points out, is that some doctors are no longer prescribing antibiotics as a knee-jerk reaction. "The trend in Europe is going back to trying to hold off a few days before using antibiotics," notes Dr. Respler. "And we may see more of this here too." The benefit in this change is that with less antibiotic use in the general population, children are not as apt to develop antibioticresistant infections. But, Dr. Respler cautions, the trade-offs are the dangerous and even potentially life-threatening complications that can stem from untreated ear infections.

Chronic Infections

For recurring ear infections, doctors commonly recommend removing milk products and eggs from the diet to eliminate food allergies as a contributing factor. But if diet and medication don't remedy the problem, ear tubes are often the final resort. These tubes, inserted surgically, drain the built-up fluid in the middle ear and can sometimes drastically clear up what was a chronic and painful condition. Because they involve an operation and anesthesia with all the potential complications - they're not a first line of defense.

Is It Okay to Go to School With an Ear Infection?

According to Dr. Respler, it's fine to go to school with an ear infection as long as there are no other cold symptoms that can be spread. An ear infection in and of itself is not contagious. Parents and teachers just need to communicate closely to coordinate the administration of medication during school time and make sure that any antibiotics that need to be refrigerated are kept at the proper temperature.

This article originally appeared in the January, 1999 issue of Early Childhood Today.