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Ear Infection Health Center

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It's in the Genes: Some Kids Are Just More Susceptible to Ear Infections

WebMD Health News

Dec. 7, 1999 (Minneapolis) -- 'Tis the season. While parents are moaning ''Not another ear infection," scientists have been busy in the lab trying to find out why some kids are more likely to get them. Researchers at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh have found a genetic component to inner ear infections in children, a component that can predispose some kids to the illness.

The good news for parents is that someday soon, physicians may be able to identify children who are at increased risk for ear infections and carry out preventive measures to eliminate the complications. The study is published in this week's issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association.

Inner ear infection -- also known as otitis media-- is inflammation or infection in the middle ear space. The illness typically occurs along with a cold (upper respiratory infection) and is responsible for more antibiotic administration and surgery than any other childhood affliction.

Otitis media occurs most often in the winter, during the cold and flu season. While most children have otitis media at least once before the age of 7 and usually respond to home treatment, untreated infections can result in hearing, developmental, and mental complications.

The researchers studied households with twins and triplets and found that there was a higher incidence of otitis media in identical siblings than in fraternal siblings. That rules out environmental factors as the sole cause of infection, since the twins and triplets had close contact with each other. Therefore, according to the researchers, a genetic component may be at work.

According to the author of the study, Margaretha L. Casselbrandt, MD, PhD, from Children's Hospital, finding a genetic link to ear infections can lead to possible prevention by avoiding risk factors. "Parents should try to eliminate risk factors such as bottle-feeding, daycare, and passive smoking," she tells WebMD. All three have been found to be aggravating factors for otitis media. "These children should be followed closely for the development of middle ear disease."

Garth D. Ehrlich, PhD, a genetic scientist at Allegheny General Hospital in Pittsburgh, says, "Otitis media is one of the most common pediatric diseases that has been firmly established as having a genetic component as well as environmental and infectious [makeup] ... [yet] physicians might not be accustomed to thinking about heredity in common illnesses such as otitis media." The findings may lead doctors to more closely observe siblings of ear infection-prone children.

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