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Health & Baby

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Baby Has an Ear Infection

Now Ear This

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Gary D. Vogin, MD

Feb. 18, 2002 -- No matter how conscientious parents are, babies are likely to come down with colds during their first year, and colds often lead to ear infections.

"The signs and symptoms can be very general, so they need to be looked at, especially in really young children less than 2 months of age," says Anthony Magit, MD, associate clinical professor at the University of California, San Diego, and the Children's Hospital and Health Center. Left untreated, ear infections can lead to more serious problems, including meningitis and hearing loss.

The typical ear infection -- called otitis media -- occurs when a cold or allergy causes swelling of the baby's eustachian tube, causing blockage that allows bacteria to grow in the middle ear. Otitis media is particularly common in babies because their immune systems are immature and their eustachian tubes may not effectively drain fluid from the middle ear.

There are two types of middle ear infections. Acute otitis media often causes pain, fever, and a bulging red eardrum. Otitis media with effusion (OME) occurs when the middle ear doesn't drain properly and fluid is trapped behind the eardrum. A child may not experience pain with OME. Both types of infection sometimes clear up without treatment.

The Latest in Ears

Because they're so run-of-the-mill, you may think you know all you need to know about ear infections. But treatment and prevention strategies have changed in the past year, so a refresher course may be in order. You should know that:

  • There's now a vaccination for children under 2 to help ward off one of the most common bacterial causes of ear infections.
  • Doctors are using antibiotics more conservatively in an effort to prevent drug resistance.
  • There's a new laser surgery that might be worth considering in certain cases of recurring ear infections.

The newest weapon in the battle against otitis media is the pneumococcal vaccine. According to new American Academy of Pediatrics guidelines, all children under age 2 years should receive the vaccine, along with other recommended immunizations, at 2, 4, and 6 months and between 12 and 15 months.

"It's not 100 percent [effective], but it seems to result in about a 20% reduction in ear infections," says Albert Park, MD, assistant professor of pediatric otolaryngology at Loyola University Medical Center in Maywood, Ill. The vaccine is also recommended for children ages 2 to 5 who are at high risk for developing pneumococcal infections.

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