Stacy, a third-grader, woke up with an earache the other night. It hurt so much that she started crying. Her mom came into her room to comfort her, and Stacy finally fell back asleep. The next morning, Stacy's parents took her to the pediatrician. There were other sick kids in the waiting room, too.
"What's wrong with you?" Stacy asked the boy sitting next to her on the couch."I've got an earache," he said.
"Me too," Stacy said. "I've had one before."
"Me too," the boy said.
Stacy and the boy have a problem that affects nearly every child at one time or another. Half of all children get ear infections before they reach their first birthday. Nine out of 10 kids have had ear infections by the time they are 6 years old. Childhood ear infections result in 3 million doctor visits each year!
If an ear infection is treated promptly - the way Stacy's parents did - it is not very serious. But if it is left untreated, the infection can lead to hearing loss, which is serious. For babies, hearing loss can delay learning to talk. Hearing loss can interfere with older kids' ability to learn and keep up in school.
The medical name for an ear infection is otitis media. Otitis media is inflammation - or swelling - of the middle ear. It can happen in one or both ears. The middle ear is a small chamber behind your eardrum. Vibrations from your eardrum - a delicate membrane that stretches across your ear opening - pass through the middle ear on their way to the brain.
Usually the middle ear is filled with air. The air gets there through a tiny tube that goes from the back of your nose up to your ear. Have you ever heard a little "pop" inside your ears when you yawn or when you go up in an airplane? That pop means your eustachian tube has just sent some air into your middle ear to equalize the air pressure inside.
The eustachian tube also carries fluid away from your middle ear. But when you have a cold or an allergy, the tube can swell up. Then the fluid can't drain away. It builds up in your middle ear, which can lead to trouble. Germs can travel up to the ear through the eustachian tube. The germs find the fluid, which makes a perfect place for them to live and multiply. When that happens, you have an infection.
Grown-ups do get earaches, but they're much more common in children. Doctors think that differences between the eustachian tubes of kids and adults may help explain why. In adults, the eustachian tube slopes down from the middle ear at a steep angle. It's easy for fluid to drain. But in children under age 8, the eustachian tube is almost flat. Fluid can't drain through it as easily. In fact, it may not drain at all. Fluid stays in the middle ear, making it more likely that an infection will take hold.
The swelling that goes with infection causes some of the pain and stuffiness you feel when you get an earache. Pressure from the trapped fluid also makes your ears hurt. An ear infection often causes a fever. You may not be able to hear as well because vibrations from your eardrum have trouble getting through your inflamed middle ear. (Your hearing will improve as the infection clears up.)