Ear infections

Ear infections are painful conditions of the inner or outer ear, which tend to recur and typically affect children more than adults. In fact, approximately 95 percent of children experience at least one ear infection by age six.

The ear has three main parts: The outer ear (where the sound waves are caught and directed into the ear canal toward the eardrum), the middle ear (where the sound waves vibrate and bounce around three tiny bones), and the inner ear (where a tiny spinal structure turns the vibrations into nerve impulses to the brain).

Many ear problems begin with the Eustachian tube, a small tube that connects the middle ear and the throat to equalize air pressure and avoid rupturing the eardrum. Unfortunately, the Eustachian tube can also allow bacteria to travel from the throat and nose into the middle ear, causing an infection known as otitis media. People with shorter Eustachian tubes tend to develop more ear infections than others because it's easier for the bacteria to invade the middle ear. When the Eustachian tubes become infected and inflamed, fluid builds up in the middle ear, decreasing hearing and causing a stuffy feeling in the head. As children grow, the angles of their Eustachian tubes change, allowing fluids to drain more readily. That's why most ear infections occur in children between the ages of 6 months and 3 years.

Ear infectionsInfections aren't the exclusive domain of the middle ear. Swimmer's ear (or otitis externa) is an infection of the outer ear that usually occurs in the summer when people are in the water a lot (though it can afflict nonswimmers as well). The infection shows up as itching or tingling outside the ear, sometimes with a yellowish discharge. If your ear hurts when you gently pull it and wiggle it, chances are good you have an outer-ear infection. Symptoms include fever, temporary loss of hearing in the affected ear, and a discharge from the ear.

Researchers have found a definite link between food allergies and recurrent ear infection, especially chronic otitis media. More than half of children with recurrent ear infections have food allergies. When the culprit foods (milk, wheat, and eggs are the common allergens) are eliminated, more than 75 percent of children improve significantly. Other factors associated with ear infection include exposure to secondhand smoke, smoke from wood-burning stoves, and being bottle-fed or having been breast-fed for less than four months.

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