A pediatrician examines a young girl's ear with an otoscope.

Ear infections are the most common reason parents bring their child to a doctor. In fact, five out of six children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday. Repeated ear infections can lead to hearing loss in children and can require surgical treatment.

Lauren Bakaletz, Ph.D., professor of both pediatrics and otolaryngology at The Ohio State University College of Medicine, is leading research in animal models to discover how a common bacterium, Haemophilus influenzae (NTHI), causes ear infections that recur, or come back again and again. She is using this information to help us win not just the battle against a single ear infection, but the war against particularly pesky recurring ear infections.

An ear infection, also called otitis media, causes inflammation and fluid buildup in the middle earthe part between your ear drum and inner ear. Anyone can get an ear infection, but children get them more often than adults.

When you get an ear infection, it’s an epic battle in your middle ear. Bacteria are the invaders. Your immune system is an army of foot soldiersfighting back bacteria and protecting the home territory. Antibiotics are the reinforcements that ride in to help your immune system kill the bacteria and restore order. Even if your immune system and antibiotics win the battle this time, they might not win the larger war, because bacteria are great at setting up strong defenses.

Bacteria like NTHI often create a coatingcalled a biofilmon the surfaces of your middle ear. This biofilm houses the bacteria and shields it from your immune system and from antibiotics. The bacteria can then stick around and create another full-blown infection later on.

There is hope for the good soldiers, though. Bakaletz’ research team is exploring the structure of biofilms in chinchillas, the gold standard animal model for studying ear infections. The scientists are designing strategies to break through the biofilm and kill the bacteria for good. They located a structure that is important for creating and maintaining biofilms. By aiming their attack at this target, the researchers both prevented biofilms from forming, and broke apart biofilms that were already there.

Future research will show if vaccines that target this structure can help prevent and treat ear infections in humans. Interestingly, this research could also help battle many other types of infections involving biofilms.

The Noisy Planet campaign increases awareness among parents about the causes of noise-induced hearing loss in children and preteens, including hearing loss from chronic or severe ear infections.

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