Does an Ear Infection Affect Balance in Toddlers?

pediatrician examining little girl's ear
Doctor looking in child's ear. (Image: michaeljung/iStock/Getty Images)

Ear infections, one of the most common childhood ailments, can make a toddler miserable. His ears hurt, his head may ache and feel stuffy, and his ears might feel full of pressure. Your toddler might also have problems with his balance, because deep inside of his ears is a whole system designed to keep his body in equilibrium. If you think your toddler may have an ear infection, or if he’s having problems maintaining balance, consult with your pediatrician.

Symptoms

Symptoms of an ear infection, in addition to troubles with balance, include crying more than usual, difficulty hearing, ear drainage, tugging or pulling at the ears and trouble sleeping. In addition, the balance issues related to an ear infection can create severe vertigo, leading to nausea and possibly vomiting.

Ear Physiology

The ear is made up of three parts: the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. The outer ear includes everything on the outside and the ear canal, including the ear drum. The middle ear contains three small bones, surrounded by air, that send sound vibrations from the ear drum to the inner ear. The inner ear contains the labyrinth, which is a group of chambers filled with fluid. The labyrinth is the part of the inner ear that controls balance.

Cause

The fluid filled chambers in the inner ear have sensory cells called hair cells. These complex hair cells extend into the fluid and move with the fluid when you shift your head to a different position. When the hair cells move, they send signals to your brain informing it of the movement and positioning of your head. Your brain, in turn, responds to these signals by keeping the rest of your body balanced despite the position of your head. When these chambers are infected, however, they become inflamed and the hair cells don’t send the proper signals, creating dizziness and problems with balance.

Treatment

Medline Plus reports that the cause of most ear infections is a viral infection, such as a cold or respiratory infection. Viral infections do not respond to antibiotics, so the course of treatment typically involves waiting for the virus to clear on its own. Pain relievers suitable for toddlers may ease some of the discomfort. Some ear infections result from bacterial infections; in these cases, your toddler’s pediatrician may prescribe an antibiotic. Toddlers with recurring ear infections may need surgery to place small tubes inside their ears to relieve the pressure inside, states Dr. James Krider of Formula Medical Group in California.

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