Monday Medical: Increase in pediatric ear infections in the aftermath of COVID
For Steamboat Pilot & Today
Traditionally, ear infections impact children ages 9 months to 3 years. But lately, physicians have noticed an upward trend in the age of their patients.
Along with a spike in pediatric ear infections this winter season, health care professionals have also noticed that older children are suffering from ear issues at ages not typically seen in previous years.
“It’s not unusual for us to be seeing children in the 3-to-7 age range struggling with ENT difficulties,” said Dr. Jason Sigmon, an otolaryngologist at UCHealth Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic in Steamboat Springs. “It’s definitely something new we’re seeing this year.”
He points to COVID being the likely culprit for the rising cases.
With the easing of COVID-19 habits such as social distancing, wearing masks and avoiding large crowds, viral-borne illnesses have surged in communities throughout the United States. And that includes ear infections, the scientific term being otitis media, of which infants and youngsters are particularly vulnerable.
What is causing the ear infection anomaly?
With life at a back-to-normal pace for many families and children attending daycare, school and other social events regularly, older children are being exposed to germs that they haven’t had a chance to build up a resistance to. Another difference this year is that Sigmon and his colleagues are treating children with ear issues who have not had a prior history of ENT issues.
Again, he points to the double whammy of the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions and the rise of viral infections. These infections cause mucus buildup, inflammation and swelling in the Eustachian tube, which connects the area behind the nose to the middle ear, that can lead to enough bacteria collecting in the area to cause an infection. Children suffer from ear infections at higher rates than adults because of their underdeveloped immune system, and because their eustachian tubes are smaller and more horizontal, fluid is more likely to collect instead of draining out of the ear.
Signs of an ear infection
- Pain in the ear.
- Lack of energy.
- Difficulty hearing.
- Discharge running out of the ear.
- Feeling pressure or fullness inside the ear.
- Itching and irritation in and around the ear.
Ways to avoid ear infections
- Avoid smoke exposure. Research shows second-hand smoking increases the likelihood of ear infections.
- Control allergies.
- Prevent colds.
- Wash your hands.
- Breastfeed, if possible.
- Bottle feed babies in an upright position. Avoid bottles in bed.
- Stay up-to-date on vaccinations.
“We’re not just seeing it locally – it’s a nationwide occurrence as well,” said Sigmon. “No question there’s a noticeable increase in the volume of kids with ENT infections.”
Ear infections are the most common reason parents end up in the doctor’s office with their little ones, with ear infections accounting for about 30 million visits to the nation’s pediatricians each year. Studies show that five of six children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday.
Most ear infections clear up on their own, and physicians caution against over prescribing antibiotics, as it reduces their effectiveness in the future. Still, if a child is miserable after several days, it’s best to see your pediatrician who can refer you to an ENT for further testing when necessary
Children who get repeated ear infections, sometimes a half dozen a year, may benefit from ear tubes. This is a surgical procedure in which doctors insert small tubes into the eardrum to improve airflow and prevent fluid buildup.
“We’re focusing more on diagnostic testing that may lead to tube placement rather than making a determination based solely on the number and frequency of infections,” Sigmon said. “Tubes aren’t the answer for every child’s ear issues, but they do go a long way in helping manage them until children grow out of the painful pattern of getting ear infections.”
Mary Gay Broderick writes for UCHealth. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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