Ear Infections 101

How to tune in to your child’s unspeakable pain

By jennifer molk

There is perhaps no worse pain for a child who is suffering with an ear infection. Any mother who has held that child knows well the inconsolable writhing, the cry unlike any other and the heart-wrenching look spilling from baby’s eyes.

Ear infections in childhood are as common as skinned knees, but a lot more painful, and dangerous if they become chronic. Millions of children are treated every year in the United States for ear infections, and nearly a third will develop a chronic condition. If left untreated, frequent ear infections can lead to hearing loss.

How does the ear become infected?

“Otitis media is a bacterial infection in the middle ear, which is the space behind the ear drum,” explained Dr. Cynthia Kennedy, who is an otolaryngologist with Ear, Nose and Throat Associates in Billings, affiliated with Saint Vincent Healthcare. “It often stems from a viral upper respiratory tract infection.”

Many external factors contribute to the development of an ear infection. “Second-hand smoke exposure irritates the membranes in the nose, throat and Eustachian tube,” Dr. Kennedy said. This, combined with the respiratory tract infection, “leads to fluid behind the ear drum, which can become invaded by bacteria.” The Eustachian tube, Dr. Kennedy explained, “is what allows us to ‘pop’ our ears, thus letting air into the middle ear space and fluid out.”

Chronic Ear Infections

Though doctors are quick to point out every child is different, a too-frequent recurrence of ear infections in a short amount of time is cause for concern. A parent should be alarmed if the illness appears four or five times in six to nine months. Dr. Kennedy said at that point, parents and their pediatrician should begin the discussion about ear tubes to aid in the path to wellness, and ultimately be referred to an ear, nose and throat specialist.

Dr. Phillip Key, with the Ear, Nose and Throat Department with Billings Clinic said ear tubes are one of the most common and successful operations performed today. “The benefits of ear tubes can include less doctor visits, decrease use of antibiotics and improvement of hearing. They allow the space behind the ear drum, or the middle ear, to drain properly and enable air to circulate behind the ear drum to help prevent infection.

Ear tubes are very small,” Dr. Key continued. “They’re placed through the ear canal into the ear drum. The hole created by the ear tube works as a substitute Eustachian tube.”

Dr. Key described the procedure as minor surgery, performed in about 15 minutes and under general anesthesia. “Children wake up quickly and are typically recovered from anesthesia within 30 minutes,” he said.

Alternative Treatment

For parents wary of long-term affects of antibiotics, there might be another way. Chiropractic care is gaining momentum as an alternative way of treating ear infections, because many in the profession believe there is a strong correlation between the birthing process and recurrent ear infections.

Dr. Kim Meier of Meier Family Chiropractic in Billings said, “If you think about how a child is born and how their head is grabbed and twisted as they are pulled out of the birthing canal, misalignments are more common than not.”

Dr. Meier works with many women during their pregnancy. Each case is different with children, she said, but all result in success. “We have had a couple significant cases with chronic ear infections that have done amazing,” Dr. Meier said. “If we are working with an infant, we use more of a positional massage-like adjustment. We also have a small adjusting tool that we can use for the kids. It puts a small percussion impulse into the vertebrae and can resume proper motion to the segment.”

Chiropractic care produces little or no side affects. Still Dr. Meier suggested that parents who are “on the fence” about bringing their kids to a chiropractor just need to do a little research. “Chiropractic care has received international press on it’s effectiveness for treating ear infections with no side effects other than improved health.”

Much like going to the gym to get fit, she analogized, treating an ear infection through chiropractic care requires some maintenance and return visits for optimal and long-term success. “We can move the vertebrae with the adjustment,” Dr. Meier stated, “but we need to work with the muscles and ligaments that hold them in place. It does take a series of adjustments to properly correct a misalignment that has been there for an extended period.

Just like you brush your teeth to prevent cavities, we work to prevent spinal decay. The stresses of daily life will always be there, so we keep your body in prime shape to deal with those stresses.”

Symptoms of an ear infection

An ear infection most commonly forms a few days after the start of a cold. The most frustrating cases are when a child is too young to communicate severe ear pain, but there are several tell-tale signs:

Pulling on the ear


Discharge of fluid from the ear

Resistance to normal routine activities



Hearing loss

Poor appetite

Decrease in sleep


Jennifer Molk is a freelance writer in Billings. She enjoys writing about topics and issues that she herself seeks the answers to. She is a mother of two.