Children's ear infections and their painful symptoms cause millions of visits to the doctor's office each year. "By age 7, as many as 90 percent of kids may have an episode of ear infection," says Dr. Robert Hsiao, a physician in Greater Baltimore Medical Center's Hereford office. Adults can also be affected, Hsiao says, often because of allergies. Swimmer's ear, another type of ear infection, can affect anybody who gets water in their ears, especially during the summer months when the humidity is high. Why do kids get so many ear infections?
Ear infections are most common in children in the 6-to-24-month age range, but young children above these ages also are at risk because of factors such as day care exposure and frequent respiratory infections.
Do children grow out of ear infections?
Children don't actually "grow out" but have reduced incidence of ear infections because of improved immunity ... and less exposure to crowded school settings.
We know kids are at risk, but what about adults?
Adults are at risk for ear infections, but their risks are much less common than they are in childhood. Adults can develop respiratory infections or allergic conditions that open the door to an ear infection.
What's the difference between an ear infection and swimmer's ear?
Ear infection is a general term that can involve the ... external ear, middle ear, inner ear or surrounding areas of the ear. Swimmer's ear is an infectious condition of the external ear and is more prevalent in the summer months because [of] humidity and exposure to water. Symptoms are congestion, fluid, itching, pain and discharge from the ear. Anybody who swims or gets water in the ear is at risk. Adults can get it, too. The signs and symptoms can overlap. A doctor will be able to tell the difference after a thorough exam.
Will antibiotics make an ear infection go away more quickly than if it's left on its own?
I think it's the age-old dilemma about whether to treat it or not. Certainly if it's bacterial, the answer is yes. But often it's viral, which will not respond to antibiotics. ... A bacterial infection can also resolve on its own. But you have to treat it because you don't want to have complications.
Any new developments on the horizon for treating ear infections?
No, but there are new antibiotics on the horizon for drug-resistant cases, which only affect a minority of patients. ... Some existing vaccines that are already being utilized, such as the flu vaccine and pneumonia vaccine, can help reduce the incidence of certain bacterial ear infections.
What about surgical intervention, like inserting tubes to drain fluid? At what point should a parent consider that option?
Frequently, you don't have to take those measures. A majority of the time the medical treatment resolves the problem through either watchful waiting or antibiotics. If a patient has lingering fluid beyond three months, that's when you have to consider the intervention or at least have a ear/nose/throat specialist evaluate it. Occasionally an adult may have the same problem and also require the tubes.