Cold Season Brings on Common Complaint: Earaches

WEST SPRINGFIELD — Cold and flu season has begun, and with it comes another painful problem for many, especially children: earaches.  

“Ear infections can be very painful,” said Dr. Vincent Meoli, regional medical director of American Family Care (AFC), with locations in Springfield and West Springfield. “They occur when a small tube, called the eustachian tube, becomes swollen or blocked, allowing fluid to build up in the middle ear behind the eardrum. This provides a perfect setting for a bacterial or viral infection. While there are several things that can cause the eustachian tube to become blocked, such as allergies, smoking, and changes in air pressure, what we see most at this time of year are ear infections caused by colds, flu, and sinus infections.”

Ear infections are most common in infants and young children because their eustachian tubes are shorter and narrower than an adults. Mild infections tend to clear up on their own within a few days.

“At-home comfort measures include over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain and decongestants,” Meoli said. “Follow dosage instructions on the package, and note that you should never give a child aspirin because of the risk of a rare condition called Reye’s syndrome, which can cause swelling in the brain or liver. Warm compresses can also provide relief when used on the affected ear, and gargling with warm saltwater can be helpful for older children and adults. Avoid smoke, and try to keep the head upright as much as possible to encourage draining.”

Signs it’s time to seek medical attention for ear pain include fluids leaking from the ear, intense pain that is not affected by over-the-counter pain medication, loss of hearing in an ear, or significant fever. Seek medical attention for a temperature above 100.4º F in an infant younger than 3 months, or a temperature of 104º F in a child of any age.

“When you see a healthcare provider for ear pain, they will look inside your ear and talk to you about your other symptoms and overall health to try and determine if the infection is bacterial or viral,” Meoli said. “Bacterial infections can be treated with antibiotics, but they are ineffective against viral infections.”

While cold weather can cause ear pain, it can’t cause an ear infection. Ears are particularly vulnerable to exposure, which can lead to pain and even frostbite when temperatures are below freezing. And because the nerves inside the ear are also unprotected, exposure to cold can quickly result in ear pain or worsen the pain of an established ear infection. “When you will be out in the cold, be sure to protect your ears with a hat, scarf, or earmuffs,” Meoli said.