Feelings of pressure, a constant, dull ache, and the occasional twinge of pain — yeah, it’s an ear infection alright. When your kid’s ears ache, you just want to hold them close and help them get better. But can you prevent ear infections in kids altogether? Nobody is totally immune from ear infections, but there are some things you can try if your little one is prone to getting them.
Why Are Kids Prone To Getting Ear Infections?
If it feels like your little one is constantly pulling at their ears and needing to see the doctor, you’re not alone. And some wee ones are just more likely to deal with earaches than others.
“Every kid 4 and under is at risk of getting ear infections, especially more in the fall and winter months when there are more upper respiratory infections that happen,” says Brian Kulbersh, M.D., pediatric ENT at Children’s of Alabama, in an interview with Romper. “Kids will get a cold or flu and get swelling in the back of their nose, and there’s a tube that connects the back of the nose and the ear called the eustachian tube. Kids younger than 4 and 5, their Eustachian tube is flat, so when fluid gets trapped in the ear it has nowhere to drain and gets infected.”
“When you have fluid in a nice warm dark place, it’s like a petri dish,” adds Patricia J. Yoon, M.D., pediatric otolaryngologist at Children’s Hospital Colorado, explaining that when the eustachian tubes don’t allow fluid in the ear to drain properly, that’s where the infection sprouts. “Some children are more prone than others. There’s known to be a genetic susceptibility, and it tends to run in families.”
As kids reach ages 4 and 5, they tend to grow out of getting ear infections so frequently as their anatomy changes inside the ear and their tubes start to tilt more, making it easier for fluid to drain.
How Can I Prevent Ear Infections For My Kid?
So, if your kiddo falls in the super-duper-prone-to-ear-infections category, know that there are some things you can do to keep them pain-free. Since the eustachian tubes plays such a big role in ear health, it’s also at the heart of most ear infection prevention tips.
Because getting sick causes irritation and swelling at the back of the nose, not getting sick in the first place is the best way to prevent ear infections. If the idea of getting your toddler to wash their hands well at day care makes you laugh, fear not — these docs know of other ways you can lower the chances they get an ear infection. Yoon and Kulbersh tell Romper you can help prevent ear infections for your child if you:
- Protect your child from secondhand smoke: “Cigarette smoke is like exposing them to a cold constantly,” Kulbersh says.
- Keep your child up to date on their immunizations: “Vaccinations can decrease the risk of ear infections from certain bacteria, so the pneumococcal vaccine and flu vaccines can both decrease risk.”
- Don’t give your baby a bottle laying down: “If your child is lying on his or her back, the reflux of milk into the eustachian tubes can contribute to ear infections,” says Yoon.
There’s one last prevention tactic that may work for you: taking away the pacifier. But Yoon said it’s best to talk to your pediatrician about this tactic first to decide how the pros and cons apply to your child, since pacifiers are known to reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS).
“There was a study in Finland that showed removing pacifiers form infants decreases the incidence of ear infections, and it probably has to do with the sucking affecting eustachian tube function,” Yoon says. “The American Academy of Family Physicians recommends weaning from pacifiers after six months.”
And, if you’re tempted to try any essential oil ear products or other remedies you see online, just be sure to speak with your child’s pediatrician first.
“The eustachian tube and all of that are behind the ear drum, so anything you put in the ear canal is not going to treat ear infections,” Yoon says.
Do Ear Tubes Prevent Ear Infections?
The short answer is yes, but not every child is a candidate for getting ear tubes. There are official guidelines for which kids should have tube surgery, but it never hurts to ask your child’s pediatrician.
“We think about putting ear tubes in when kids are having frequent ear infections for three reasons: one is quality of life, the second is that we don’t like kids having to be on antibiotics all the time, and the third reason is every time you have an ear infection your hearing is not as clear as it should be, so we worry if you spend a lot of time with compromised hearing at a time when you’re trying to learn language, it could lead to some speech development issues.”
Patricia J. Yoon, M.D., Associate Medical Director of the Bill Daniels Center for Children’s Hearing at Children’s Hospital Colorado and Associate Professor of Otolaryngology at the University of Colorado School of Medicine
Brian Kulbersh, M.D., pediatric ENT at Children’s of Alabama