Identifying Ear Infections in Children

Clarice Clemmens, M.D.

Ear infections (also known as otitis media) are the most common reason for antibiotic use in children. At least seventy percent of children will develop at least one ear infection by the age of three years, with a peak in incidence in children ages six to 18 months.

Ear infections are caused by bacteria within the space behind the ear drum (the middle ear). Symptoms of an ear infection are variable but may include fevers, ear pain, tugging on the ear, fussiness, or changes in behavior. Ear infections are also often associated with a reversible hearing loss due to fluid accumulation in the middle ear. Physical examination of the ear by a care provider will reveal a bulging and/or red ear drum with infected fluid in the middle ear space. Ear pain and tugging on the ear can also occur in the setting of non-infected fluid, so it is important that a care provider confirms the presence of an infection prior to treatment.

In certain situations, care providers may recommend an observation period prior to initiating antibiotic treatment. If it is determined that an infection requires antibiotics, appropriate antibiotic selection and close follow-up is important to ensure adequate treatment of the infection. If left untreated for a prolonged period, more serious complications may develop from ear infections, such as mastoiditis (an infection of the bone behind the ear) or meningitis (inflammation of protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord).

While many children will experience one isolated ear infection, some children will go on to develop recurrent episodes or chronic ear infections. When the ear infections become recurrent or chronic, more extensive treatment such as the insertion of ear tubes may be required. Ear tubes allow for the drainage of fluid and pressure equalization across the ear drum. While they do not completely prevent ear infections, they often decrease the frequency of the infections and make the infections less severe and easier to treat.

MUSC Health Ear, Nose & Throat (ENT) makes extra effort to ensure the comfort of its youngest patients.

“The thing I love most about MUSC Health is the pediatrics-focused care. We have four pediatric ENT doctors here who specialize in ENT care for children only,” says MUSC Health Pediatric ENT Clarice S. Clemmens, M.D. “And the new MUSC pediatrics facility, the R. Keith Summey Medical Pavillion, is incredible. From child life specialists, to therapy dogs – we try to make our facility as kid-friendly as possible!”

The new MUSC Health pediatric ambulatory surgery facility includes an induction room where parents are given the option to accompany their children as they fall asleep before surgery. Post-surgery, parents are at their child’s beside before the child is fully awake, so the child perceives that his or her parents were there throughout the procedure.

“At MUSC Health there’s a strong consensus among care providers that we’re here for the kids and their families,” says Dr. Clemmens. “Even a simple procedure can be scary for parents and kids. Taking an extra ten minutes to explain the process and ensure that everyone is comfortable is an important part of my job.”

Please give us a call at 843-792-3531 to schedule an appointment with our team. We look forward to meeting you, to helping your child on the path to healthy ears.