Ear infections are a part of growing up, but if they become a recurrent or severe problem, your health care provider can recommend the most effective treatment.

Ear infections are troublesome for everyone, especially children. Majestic Tam, M.D., Mayo Clinic Health System ear, nose and throat physician, answers important questions about this common ailment.

Q: What causes ear infections?
A: Middle ear infections, which are the most common ear infections, are caused by a bacterium or virus that infects fluid that builds up in the middle ear. Ear infections are often a direct result of a common cold, allergy or other upper respiratory illness.

Q: Why do children have more ear infections than adults?
A: Eustachian tubes are narrow channels inside your ears that allow drainage – preventing fluid in the middle ear from building up. Children have Eustachian tubes that are shorter, more narrow and straighter than those of adults. These tubes can clog with fluid easier and cause infections.

Q: How do I know if my child has an ear infection?
A: Some of the common signs of an ear infection in children are:
Ear pain, especially when lying down
Tugging or pulling on the ear
Trouble sleeping
Hearing difficulty
Headache or fever
Fluid drainage from the ear

Q: How do you treat an ear infection?
A: The best treatment for an ear infection depends on many factors, including the age of the child and the severity of the symptoms. Most ear infections clear up on their own within a week without medical treatment such as antibiotics. However, there are ways to lessen the pain such as using a warm compress, pain medications and eardrops. Children with chronic ear infection issues may need the surgical placement of ear tubes to drain the fluid and prevent future infections.

Q: What is swimmer’s ear?
A: Swimmer’s ear is an infection of the outer ear canal. It’s most often caused by moisture that collects in the ear and aids in bacteria growth. It’s more common in people who spend a lot of time in the water – hence the name, “swimmer’s ear.” Medicated eardrops are the most common treatment of swimmer’s ear.

Q: How do you prevent ear infections?
A: Ear infections are sometimes unavoidable, especially with small children. However, there are some ways you can reduce your risk:
Use a hair dryer to dry out your ears after swimming or bathing
Don’t use any objects to clean out your ears
Practice good hand hygiene
Avoid second-hand smoke
Avoid bottle feeding your infant in the lying position
Protect your ears from excessive noise by using ear plugs

Q: What is ear candling and is it safe?
A: Ear candling involves placing a lit, cone-shaped candle into the ear canal.

The theory is that the heat from the candle will draw earwax out and clean the ear. Research has shown that this is NOT true, and ear candling is not an effective way to clean the ears. In fact, it often pushes the earwax further into the ear canal and can be quite dangerous. There is a risk of burning your face, hair and ears. You can also puncture your ear drum. If you do have earwax blockage, do not use ear candling. Instead, see your health care provider for more effective and safe ways to remove earwax.

Ear infections are a part of growing up, but if they become a recurrent or severe problem, your health care provider can recommend the most effective treatment.

    To schedule an appointment at Mayo Clinic Health System in St. James, please call 1-877-412-7575.

     Mayo Clinic Health System will offer a Speaking of Health presentation on ear infections that is open to the public in the main conference room of the hospital at Mayo Clinic Health System in St. James on Thursday, April 18 at 7 p.m.