Kids’ ears are sensitive: to bacteria, to loud noises, to changes in pressure, to pennies/miniature action figures/pencils shoved in them.
They get infected. A lot.
It’s basically a question of pipes and drainage. The sinus system runs from the ear to the back of the nose. In kids, it’s shorter and more horizontal, so it’s easier for bacteria to get stuck and for swelling to build up. As kids grow, the canal lengthens and becomes more vertical, so infections are less common. “Ear infections are the most predictably painful thing most kids will undergo, health-wise,” says Dr. Joseph Donzelli, an otolaryngologist at Midwest ENT Consultants in Naperville. “It’s just a fact of life when you have a baby or toddler.” Think about the thickest snot you’ve ever blown out of your nose. That’s what gets stuck in kids’ ear canals, and it’s not going anywhere on its own. Antibiotics usually do the trick, but if fluid remains in the ear past 12 weeks, Donzelli says, a specialist will likely recommend that you have the ear manually drained.
Swimmers’ ear is a real thing – and it’s not limited to swimmers.
Most ear infections affect the middle ear, under the ear drum. Swimmers’ ear is an outer ear infection, on top of or outside of eardrum. It’s more common in kids who swim, but it’s not, as some people think, caused by water stuck in the ear or any bacteria in the water itself. Instead, heavy swimming reduces the amount of ear wax, which is actually protective against infection. So don’t over-clean your ears, which brings us to…
Never use Q-tips
It’s important to keep ears clean, but especially with kids, you should never stick anything in a child’s ear, Donzelli says. “It doesn’t take much for child to turn their head and just like that, you can puncture an eardrum.” Use a washcloth or cotton ball instead, and only go after what you can see by casually looking at the ear. If it’s way in there, it should stay in there, Donzelli says.
Flying is harder on kids’ ears
Time for a physics lesson. When you go up in an airplane, the pressure in the cabin goes down, which causes the middle ear cavity tries to expand. Not so bad, really. But the reverse happens when you descend: Pressure goes up, and the ear cavity tries to contract. Major ouch. And it’s worse for kids, Donzelli says, whose ears don’t tolerate the pressure change as well as those of adults. If your child has a cold or allergies, try a nasal decongestant before boarding, or a nasal steroid spray a few days before the trip,to help open up the nasal passages. Once on board, chewing gum can help, or if your child is too young (experts say gum poses a serious choking hazards to kids under four), have them take little sips of water from a bottle starting about 30-45 minutes before landing.The suck-swallow motion will keep the eustachian tube, the ear’s pressure regulator, from closing and keep a lid on painful ear-popping.
There’s not a whole lot you can do about an earache
Earaches are the classic “it’s going to get worse before it gets better” situation. Pain relievers like Motrin or Tylenol can give some relief, but once your child gets to the point of extreme pain, there’s not a whole lot you can do, Donzelli says. “At that point, the only thing that’s going to stop the pain is if the eardrum ruptures.” Anecdotal remedies like a warm washcloth or compress are just that – anecdotal remedies – though they certainly won’t hurt. Donzelli says position doesn’t make a big difference, either.