Chronic Ear Infections May Be Childhood Obesity Risk Factor

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Chronic otitis media – better known as a chronic middle ear infection – are more common in children because their Eustachian tubes, the tube that links the back of the throat to the middle ear, are shorter, narrower, and more horizontal than in adults. Ear infections are known as a common cause of hearing disturbances in children, but researchers now have linked the chronic inflammation with taste changes that can lead to childhood obesity.

Il Ho Shin MD, of Kyung Hee University in Seoul measured taste thresholds of 42 children, ages 3 to 7, with chronic otitis media with effusion (COME), in which effusion fluid is retained in the middle ear cavity, and assessed their body mass index. The children underwent insertion of a tympanostomy tube, a small plastic tube placed into the eardrum to keep the middle ear aerated. A control group of 42 children without ear infections were also assessed.

The children were given chemical taste tests consisting of four standard solutions – sugar (sweet), salt (salty), citric acid (sour), and quinine hydrochloride (bitter). Children with COME had diminished thresholds for sweet and salty tastes than the control subjects, meaning they had a reduced ability to taste these flavors. This could result in an “excessive intake of calories and liquids, increasing fat deposition and fluid retention and ultimately resulting in obesity,” the researchers wrote.

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Children with COME, in fact, did have a significantly higher body mass index (BMI) than the control group.

Physicians suggest that the function of the chorda tympani nerve, the nerve branch that conveys taste sensation from the anterior two thirds of the tongue, may deteriorate due to chronic inflammation. This could diminish the taste sensation.

Chronic, long-term ear infections may have less severe symptoms than an acute infection, so therefore may go unnoticed and untreated. Symptoms include mild ear pain, discomfort or pressure; fever; fussiness; pus-like drainage from the ear; or hearing loss. Chronic ear infections usually respond to antibiotic treatment, but the child may need to take medication for several months.

Source reference:
Shin IH, et al "Changes in taste function related to obesity and chronic otitis media with effusion"Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg 2011; 137(3): 242-246.

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