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What Causes Ear Infections in Children

Ear infections are one of the most common reasons parents take their children to see the doctor. By age three, most children have experienced at least one ear infection, known medically as acute otitis media (AOM).

Ear infections can be painful and disruptive for kids, often interfering with sleep and hearing. As a parent, you want to understand what causes these frustrating infections so you can help prevent them.

Anatomy of the Ear


To understand what leads to ear infections, it helps to first learn about the anatomy of the ear. The ear is divided into three main parts: the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. The outer ear includes the ear canal and eardrum. The middle ear contains three tiny bones called the malleus, incus and stapes which transmit sounds from the eardrum to the inner ear. The inner ear contains the cochlea and vestibule which are responsible for hearing and balance.

The middle ear is connected to the back of the throat by a narrow channel called the Eustachian tube. This tube helps regulate air pressure and drain fluid from the middle ear space. When the Eustachian tube becomes blocked or impaired, fluid can build up in the middle ear, leading to infection.

Common Causes of Ear Infections

Several factors can increase a child’s risk of developing a middle ear infection:

Viruses and bacteria – Viruses like the common cold, flu, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) can cause inflammation and congestion of the Eustachian tubes. Bacteria like Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae can also infect the middle ear space.

Allergies – Allergies can trigger swelling in the nasal passages and throat, blocking the Eustachian tubes.

Secondhand smoke – Exposure to tobacco smoke irritates the lining of the Eustachian tube, increasing susceptibility to infection.

Bottle-feeding – Babies who are bottle-fed, especially while lying down, may have more ear infections early on. Sucking on a bottle can negative pressure and fluid buildup in the middle ear.

Family history – Ear infections can run in families. Siblings of children with recurrent infections are more likely to get them.

Daycare settings – Young children in group daycare are at higher risk as germs spread easily.

Changes in air pressure – Things like air travel, scuba diving, or altitude changes can affect ear pressure and increase the chance of infection.

Cleft palate – A cleft or malformation of the palate creates an abnormality of the Eustachian tube that may impair drainage.

Immune deficiencies – Children with immunodeficiencies are more susceptible to all kinds of infections, including ear infections.

Signs and Symptoms

The most common sign of an ear infection is pain and fussiness. Since the infection causes fluid buildup in the middle ear, pressure on the eardrum leads to pain. Other symptoms may include:

  • Tugging or pulling at the ear
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite, vomiting, diarrhea
  • Fever
  • Drainage from the ear
  • Difficulty hearing or responding to quiet sounds

Crying, poor sleeping, and loss of balance can all be signs of an ear infection in infants. Any symptoms of illness combined with ear pain should be evaluated by a doctor.

Can a Chiropractor Help Ear Infections?

While antibiotics are commonly prescribed for bacterial ear infections, some parents want to consider more natural approaches. Chiropractic care focuses on alignment of the spine but can also help improve Eustachian tube function.

Gentle chiropractic adjustments can restore motion to the bones of the spine, reducing nerve interference. Specific adjustments to the upper neck area can help improve drainage of the Eustachian tubes. Reducing inflammation and congestion in this area allows the tubes to open, lowering the chance of fluid accumulation in the ears.

Additionally, chiropractors can provide nutritional advice, tips for relieving ear pain at home, and exercises to help strengthen the musculoskeletal system. Combining chiropractic with good hygiene, proper nutrition, and smart lifestyle choices is a proactive way to enhance your child’s health.

Many Ear Infections can be Resolved (or Avoided) with Specific Adjustments

The most common type of ear infection is called Acute Otitis Media. This condition occurs when parts of the middle ear become infected, leading to trapped fluid behind the eardrum. This can cause severe pain in the ear, commonly known as an earache. The infection is usually secondary to an upper respiratory infection from a virus or bacteria. Children who eat a diet high in DAIRY, WHEAT, and SUGAR are more prone to infections because these products overexert and drain the immune system.

Chronic ear infections can be devastating not only to the child, who is in excruciating pain but also to the parents when seeing their child in such discomfort. Before turning to antibiotics (which can cause moderate to severe digestive distress) or surgery (which in over 30% of cases requires repeated surgical intervention), try the safe and effective route of chiropractic adjustments.

Allowing an adjustment to realign the upper cervical spine and occiput (back of the skull) can shift the mechanics of the Eustachian tubes and allow for better drainage. Proper drainage ultimately allows your child to fight off infection and build immunity for future health. Although some parents are initially hesitant to try this approach for their children, adjustment techniques are always adapted to the individual child and are safe for children of all ages.

If your child experiences frequent bouts of ear infections or hearing problems, schedule a chiropractic evaluation. With a tailored wellness plan, many children experience fewer infections and improved quality of life under regular chiropractic care. By addressing the root causes, chiropractic aims to prevent ear problems rather than just treat them reactively.


Content Reviewed by
Doctor of Chiropractic