It's in the Genes: Some Kids Are Just More Susceptible to Ear Infections
Dec. 7, 1999 (Minneapolis) -- 'Tis the season. While parents are moaning
''Not anotherear 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
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
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
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.
Roland Eavey, MD, of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary in Boston, tells
WebMD that the environmental component in ear infections -- that is, kids
passing the infection on to others in day care -- is to be expected. But the
hereditary factor is a bit more uncertain, he says.
"Because ear infections account for 25 million medical clinic visits a
year, there is value in looking at this disorder," according to Eavey.
Eavey says that beyond families with twins, the study suggests that there
can be tendencies within families for the same pattern of ear infections. One
could imply that children should be checked more frequently for early signs of
infection and more ambitiously treated with medications and ear tubes, he tells
The study broadens the definition of what constitutes genetic disease,
researchers say, and will compel scientists and physicians to look at
infectious diseases in a new light.