Ear infections and hearing problems

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Why has my baby got an ear infection?

Just like colds, ear infections are really common with babies and little children. In fact, they often follow on from a cold. While an older child can tell you their ear hurts – or they are coordinated enough to rub it – a little baby can’t tell you or show you where the pain is, so they just tend to be unhappy and cry. If they’ve just had a cold, be aware that a sore ear might be the problem.

Again like colds, most ear infections get better by themselves. Most are caused by viruses and so won’t respond to antibiotics. Don’t try and clean out the ear by putting anything into it, like cotton buds, eardrops or oil. You can use baby paracetamol or ibuprofen, but make sure you follow the instructions on the packet precisely so you don’t risk overdosing your baby.

If the problem persists or worsens and you suspect an ear infection, take your child to the doctor. They will be able to examine the eardrum for signs of redness and infection. If your doctor thinks there is a bacterial infection they will prescribe antibiotics.

What is glue ear?

If your baby or child keeps getting ear infections, they might end up having something called ‘glue ear’. This means the build up of a sticky (hence the name ‘glue’) fluid in the middle ear. The middle ear contains tiny bones that need to vibrate freely in air. If fluid fills this area it can severely impair hearing.

If a baby or child is anywhere near an adult who smokes, this will increase their chances of getting glue ear, and it also means the condition will clear up more slowly.

Glue ear usually clears up but if this does not happen within three months or glue ear keeps occurring, it can lead to impairment in hearing, as well as speech and language development.

This might even lead to unclear speech, less social interaction (as the child cannot hear well and misses lots of social interaction) and behavioural problems. If you think your baby has glue ear, get advice and treatment from a doctor.

If your child is referred to a paediatric ENT (ear, nose and throat) consultant they may decide to put ‘grommets’ in your child’s ear, which allow the gluey secretions in the ear to drain. This helps hearing as the pressure on the eardrum is reduced, allowing it to work properly.

Adenoids

Your baby or toddler may also have large tonsils and adenoids. Speak to your doctor if your child snores loudly or displays any signs of sleep apnoea, where they stop breathing for periods of time (you can always film your baby sleeping to show the doctor).

If your child is referred to an ENT paediatrician they may also decide to remove very enlarged adenoids or tonsils if hearing problems, sleeping problems and ear and upper respiratory tract infections are persistent.