If you think that having your child wear a hat will prevent earaches, think again. While it’s a common belief, there is no basis for it. Also, cold temperatures and wind in your child’s ears will not cause middle ear infections — but they may make the pain of an existing earache worse.
Generally, earaches are caused by a build-up of fluid behind your child’s tympanic membrane or eardrum, which is located in the middle ear. This happens when the Eustachian tube (a drainage tube that runs from the middle ear to the back of the throat) becomes blocked. When this tube is blocked, build-up of fluid in the middle ear causes pain. Colds, allergies and adenoid swelling can cause Eustachian tube blockage.
Earaches can be either short term (acute) or long term (chronic). Both types have common causes.
Ottis externa (or “swimmer’s ear”) affects your child’s ear canal (which extends from the eardrum to the outer ear). As the name suggests, this type of earache is caused by excess moisture, usually by polluted or chlorinated water. But it’s also caused by irritation brought on by cotton-tipped swabs and earplugs, or if your child lacks enough preventative earwax. Tugging or pulling on your child’s earlobe will increase the pain of ottis externa.
Ottis media (a middle-ear infection) can cause inflammation and/or infection of the inner ear and is usually brought on by a cold or allergies.
Wax blockage is another cause of earaches. The hair follicles and glands that line your child’s inner ear produce a waxy oil called cerumen. Cerumen helps protect the ear by trapping particles like dust and microorganisms. While this earwax either falls out or is removed when the ears are washed, too much wax can block your child’s ear canal and harden within it. Be very careful when trying to clean out earwax in your child’s ear because you may actually push it deeper and cause blockage.
Perforated or ruptured eardrums can also cause earaches and ear pain. Infection, foreign objects in the ear and barotraumas (damage due to pressure changes, like in an airplane or when diving) can cause the rupture, which is accompanied by sharp pain. When the eardrum is damaged, bacteria can travel into the inner ear and cause infection.