Hear This: Inner Ear Infections Can Lead to Balance and Vertigo Issues
by Dr. Lawrence Meiteles
With cold and flu season around the corner, parents have to prepare for the possibility of inner ear infections in their children. Kids are particularly susceptible to ear complications because their narrow sinus passages and still developing ear canals may not drain the excess fluid properly. Here are a few potential causes and concerns with these infections, and methods for prevention and treatment.
We tend to see more upper respiratory and sinus infections during the fall and winter months in our area. Cold and flu season spikes when people begin spending more time inside due to the colder weather. There’s no question that as respiratory and sinus infections increase, we see more inner ear infections. The infections are usually a complication from the build-up of mucus in the sinus passages. The fluid can trap bacteria, which can lead to an infection.
If we see redness and fluid building up in the eardrum, those are the signs of a bacterial infection, we’ll prescribe antibiotics. 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.
If the fluid persists longer than three months, we’ll consider other aspects of the child’s life: Have hearing and speech been affected? Is schooling difficult for the child due to poor hearing? In some cases we’ll insert tubes into the eardrum to assist fluid drainage.
For many patients, a short course of antibiotics and over-the-counter decongestants are effective treatments. For others though, these infections can lead to inner ear and balance problems. If the fluid remains in the ear for a period of time, it can interfere with the inner ear structures that assist balance. This condition is relatively rare, but we do see it from time to time. Usually the issues resolve themselves after treatment with antibiotics and the infection and fluid clear up, but occasionally the damage to the balance structures can be permanent.
In such cases, we bring the patient to the Balance Center for diagnostic testing and if warranted vestibular therapy to help restore balance. A customized therapy program is developed for each patient including visual exercises, such as mimicking sitting in the stands at a tennis match. The patient looks to his left and holds the head steady until he feels stable, then turns his head to the right and again holds the head steady. With this and other therapies, our goal is to retrain the balance system, reroute the neural signals, and help the brain to ignore the faulty signals from the damaged structures.
There are several steps parents can take to help prevent ear infections: Make sure your child gets a flu shot. Encourage your children to wash their hands frequently, since hand-to-face contact is how germs are typically passed. Avoid cigarette smoke, since this leaves children more susceptible to ear infections. Try not to put your infants down with a bottle at night, research has shown that this can raise the risk of ear infections. Finally, the National Institutes of Health also recommends that children be vaccinated against pneumonia with the PCV13 vaccine. Studies indicate that vaccinated children are not only protected against pneumonia but that they get far fewer ear infections than children who don’t get the vaccine.
Editor’s Note: Dr. Lawrence Meiteles is a board-certified otolaryngologist and the Medical Director of Northern Westchester Hospital’s Balance Center at Chappaqua Crossing
The Balance Center at Northern Westchester Hospital helps patients of all ages who struggle with vertigo and imbalance. Some cases are easy to resolve while others can take extensive therapy. Vertigo can be a very disabling symptom, though we know that many of the therapies we use can be effective in restoring balance.