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Ear Infections Can Lead to Balance Problems

For many parents, winter can be a time when their children suffer with inner ear infection. Kids are particularly susceptible to ear complications because their narrow sinus passages and still-developing ear canals might not properly drain excess fluid. Which means short-term discomfort, fever and lots of ear tugging.

Acute otitis media (AOM) is the most common ear infection. Parts of the middle ear are infected and swollen and fluid is trapped behind the eardrum, causing earaches.

Dr. Lawrence Meiteles, an otolaryngologist and medical director of Northern Westchester Hospital’s Balance Center at Chappaqua Crossing , says that as cold and flu season spikes and the rate of respiratory and sinus infections rises, the occurrence of inner ear infections increases as well. “The infections are usually a complication from the build up of mucus in the sinus passages,” says Meiteles. “The fluid can trap bacteria, which can lead to an infection.”

There are several steps parents can take to prevent ear infections. Above all, says Meiteles, “Make sure your child gets a flu shot.” Additionally, he suggests encouraging children to wash their hands frequently, as germs are typically passed by hand-to-face contact.

He also suggests that parents avoid smoking cigarettes in proximity to their children, since this leaves youngsters more susceptible to ear infections. He adds: “Try not to put your infants down with a bottle at night, which research shows can raise the risk of ear infections." Finally, Meiteles says that the National Institutes of Health recommends children get vaccinated against pneumonia with the PCV13 vaccine. Studies indicate that vaccinated children are not only protected against pneumonia but that they get fewer ear infections than children who do not receive the vaccine.

Meiteles will prescribe antibiotics “only if there is redness and fluid building up in the eardrum. Those, he says, are signs of a bacterial infection. “But if the ear looks normal, the infection is most likely viral and we treat the symptoms with decongestants and painkillers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.”

But if fluid remains in the ear for a period of time, it can interfere with those inner ear structures that assist balance. This condition, says, Meiteles, is relatively rare, but occasionally damage to balance structures can be permanent. When he sees patients at the balance center with such issues, Meiteles says, “we do diagnostic testing and, if warranted, vestibular therapy to help restore balance. A customized therapy program is developed for each patient in order to retrain the balance system, reroute neural signals and help the brain ignore faulty signals from damaged structures.

When caught early and treated properly, most common children’s ear infections are short-lived and not dangerous.

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