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What Causes Ear Infections?

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Updated May 16, 2014

Close-up of a woman wrapping her daughter in a towel at the beach
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Ear infections (also called otitis media) are most often seen in children -- and certain children seem to have an affinity for developing them. To understand what an ear infection is and what may have caused it you must first understand the anatomy of the inner ear. The inner ear is connected to the back of the throat by a small tube commonly called the auditory tube or Eustachian tube. Under normal circumstances, this tube remains open and allows unwanted fluid and debris to drain from the ear and into the back of the throat. When this tube becomes clogged and fails to drain properly, bacteria or other germs may become trapped inside the ear causing an infection.

Why Does My Child Keep Getting Ear Infections?

Because children have a shorter auditory tube than adults it is easier for the tube to become clogged. In other words, the actual anatomy of your child's auditory tube can put him at a higher risk for developing ear infections. The following also put your child at a higher risk of developing chronic ear infections:

  • Ear infections often originate from a cold. Children who are exposed to a lot of other children (such as in a daycare setting are at a higher risk of catching the common cold and a subsequent ear infection.
  • Ear infections are one of many problems that can result from exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke.
  • Babies who are bottle fed are more likely to develop ear infections than babies who are breastfed. This is due to the fact that when a baby lays flat and sucks from a bottle the auditory tube collapses. You can prevent this by keeping your child upright while bottle feeding.

Can My Child Get an Ear Infection from Swimming?

Sometimes children who are frequent swimmers develop a condition called swimmer's ear (otitis externa), which is an infection of the outer ear and is not the same thing as otitis media. Here are some suggestions for preventing swimmer's ear:

  • Use removable ear plugs while swimming
  • Dry the ear thoroughly after getting out of the pool using a hair dryer on the lowest heat setting.
  • Don't use Q-tips or other objects to clean or dry the ear as they may introduce bacteria into the ear canal.
  • Take baths instead of showers and be careful not to allow any water to enter your ears while washing your hair.
  • Do not remove earwax.

Sources:

American Academy of Family Physicians. Otitis Externa: A Practical Guide to Treatment and Prevention. Accessed: March 3,2009 from http://www.aafp.org/afp/20010301/927.html

American Academy of Pediatrics. Ear Infections-Common Risk Factors. Accessed : March 3, 2009 from http://www.medem.com/medlib/article/ZZZCU4MJ8VD

Medline Plus. Ear Infections. Accessed: March 3, 2009 from http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/earinfections.html

  1. About.com
  2. Health
  3. Ear, Nose, & Throat Disorders
  4. Pediatric ENT Disorders
  5. What Causes an Ear Infection (Otitis Media)?

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