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Ear Infection Prevention and Risk Factors

Since ear infections tend to occur in children and teens, parents may find it beneficial to know about ear infection prevention and risk factors.

Washing the hands to avoid germ spreading helps prevent ear infections. [© Shutterstock, 2010]
© Shutterstock, 2010
Washing the hands to avoid germ spreading helps prevent ear infections.

Ear Infection Prevention and Risk Factors

Since ear infections tend to occur in children and teens, parents may find it beneficial to know about ear infection prevention and risk factors. Middle and outer ear infections require different preventative measures.

Preventing Middle Ear Infection

Parents can take several steps to reduce children's chances of getting a cold or other respiratory infection, which leads to fewer ear infections. They can prevent germs from spreading by washing hands and toys frequently and avoiding pacifiers. They can choose a childcare setting with 6 or fewer children or limit the amount of time children spend in group childcare.

The Mayo Clinic recommends breastfeeding a baby for at least six months to reduce the risk of ear infections. If a bottle is used, parents or caregivers should hold the baby in a sitting position when bottle feeding. Protecting a child from secondhand smoke also reduces the risk of ear infection.

Pneumococcal vaccine, which prevents respiratory infections such as pneumonia, can reduce the risk of ear infections. This option should be discussed with a doctor.

Older children and adults who suffer from middle ear infection may wish to try chewing gum that has the artificial sweetener xylitol. A study published in the British Medical Journal reports that xylitol chewing gum seems to prevent acute middle ear infection. Two other studies have confirmed these findings.

Risk Factors of Middle Ear Infection

Some risk factors for middle ear infection are not preventable. The following groups are at greater risk of having middle ear infection:

  • Boys
  • Children from six to 18 months old
  • Babies born prematurely
  • Individuals with a history of ear infections in the family
  • Children with siblings
  • Individuals with immune system disorders
  • American Indians and Inuit

Preventing Outer Ear Infection

Some precautions can help to prevent infection in the outer ear and ear canal, which is commonly referred to as swimmers ear. Ears should be kept dry. Swimmers should consider wearing earplugs. After being in the water, swimmers and bathers should tilt their heads from side to side to let the water drain out of the ear canals. Then they can dry their ears thoroughly with a soft towel or cloth. They should dry the outer ear slowly and gently. A blow dryer may be used to dry the ears as well. It should be on the lowest setting and held at least 12 inches from the ear.

Swimmers should avoid swimming in polluted water as this may increase the possibility of contracting swimmers ear. And anyone who has recently had an ear infection or an ear surgery should be cautious, even in the cleanest water.

After swimming, preventative eardrops may be used as long as there is no possibility of a punctured eardrum. Over the counter solutions are available, but a simple homemade eardrop of half white vinegar and half rubbing alcohol may also be used. This solution helps to prevent bacteria and fungi from growing in the ear. A teaspoon of the solution can be poured into each ear and then allowed to drain out.

To prevent swimmers ear, care must be taken when cleaning the ears. One should not try to remove excess or hardened earwax with a cotton swab or any other object, which may only pack the material deeper into the ear canal. Also, it may irritate or scratch the thin skin inside the ear.

Protecting the ears from swimmers ear also involves keeping the chemicals from hair dyes and hair styling products out. If avoiding these products is out of the question, then cotton balls should be placed in the ears.

Other Known Risk Factors of Outer Ear Infection

A study in the Archives of Environmental Health reports that being under the age of 18 is a risk factor for outer ear infection. Children, teenagers and young adults tend to be more susceptible to outer ear infection, because their ear canals are smaller and water can more easily become trapped in them. Excessive ear wax may trap water in the ear canal, leading to swimmers ear. However, excessive cleaning of the ear canal is also a risk factor, as is the use of devices such as hearing aids or swim caps, which may trap water, and skin allergies from jewelry or other allergic agents.

Individuals who have had a middle ear infection, a cold or some other respiratory infection are also at greater risk of getting an outer ear infection.

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