- What is an ear infection?
- How common are ear infections in children?
- What causes ear infections in children?
- Who is at a higher risk of getting ear infections?
- How to know if your child has an ear infection?
- When to call a doctor?
- How is an ear infection diagnosed?
- How to treat ear infections in children?
- How long does an ear infection last?
- How to make your child feel better?
- Home remedies for your child’s ear infections
- How can you prevent your child from getting an ear infection?
- What happens if your child keeps getting ear infections?
- What are the complications arising from ear infections?
- Frequently asked questions
Did you know that an ear infection happens more in young children than in adults? In fact, it is the most common reason for parents to take their children to a doctor because more than 40% children suffer from the infection before they are five years old (1).
What Is An Ear Infection?
Ear infection is a swelling or inflammation of the middle ear or the ear canal due to the accumulation of fluids behind the eardrum, usually due to some bacteria.
Children experience two types of ear infections:
- Acute otitis externa (AOE) or a swimmer’s ear is an infection of the ear canal (outer part of the ear) (2).
- Middle ear infections or otitis media (OM) is of two types again (3):
- Otitis media with effusion (OME): This condition is caused when the fluid builds up in the middle ear but has no specific signs and symptoms such as fever, ache or pus. Therefore, it is also known as a silent ear infection.
- Acute otitis media or the classic ear infection (AOM): This is also caused by fluid build-up inside the middle ear, but is accompanied by pain, fever or signs of infection such as redness and swelling.
[ Read: Perforated Eardrum Treatment In Kids ]
How Common Are Ear Infections In Children?
According to the US National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, five out of six children have at least one ear infection (AOM) in the first three years.
The statistics from the Harvard Medical School show that more than two million children in the US suffer from OME, mostly after experiencing a cold or flu (4).
What Causes Ear Infections In Children?
Ear infections are caused due to the blockage of the Eustachian tube (connects the middle ear to the back of the nose) during a cold, allergy or upper respiratory infection or because of the build-up of pus.
- In the case of upper respiratory tract infection, the bacteria can spread to the middle ear. For example, AOM is commonly caused by the bacteria Streptococcus pneumonia.
- If the infection is due to a virus like cold, the virus forms fluid there and invites bacteria to cause a secondary infection in the middle ear.
- Sometimes, foreign objects like cotton swabs or bobby pins can cause cuts and bruises, leading to AOE or acute otitis externa.
- Swimming in infected water can cause AOE.
Who Is At A Higher Risk Of Getting Ear Infections?
Some children are more prone to the infection than the others due to the below reasons:
- Hereditary: Children whose sibling or parents have a history of ear infections are vulnerable.
- Secondhand smoking: Cigarette smoke irritates the Eustachian tube and cilia, the small hair cells, which in turn trap the bacteria and viruses, rather than sweeping them away (7).
- Bedwetting: The habit of bedwetting can result in the spread of the bacteria, thus increasing the chances of ear infection.
[ Read: Hearing Loss In Children ]
How To Know If Your Child Has An Ear Infection?
Look for the following signs and symptoms in your kid:
- The first signs of ear infections are those of flu or cold, like a runny nose, irritability, blocked nose and slight fever.
- Your kid may not sleep or eat well.
- You can notice blood or pus discharge from the ears, which is a definite sign of an ear infection.
- If the child is too young to complain, they may keep tugging at the ears.
- Older children may complain of limited hearing, pain in the ears or a headache.
When To Call A Doctor?
You may have to see a doctor if the child has:
- Shown no improvement even after four days
- Any fluid discharge from the ear
- Pain in both the ears
- Slight deafness
- Buzzing in the ear
- High fever
- Redness in the ear
- Wavering balance
- Nausea or vomiting
How Is An Ear Infection Diagnosed?
- Your child’s doctor will inquire about their primary health histories, such as any recent cold or a sore throat; if your kid is tugging the ears, getting irritable and losing sleep.
- The doctor uses an instrument called otoscope to take a look at the eardrum. If the eardrum is swollen, bulging or reddish, it indicates an ear infection.
- They may also use a device called pneumatic otoscope, which blows air in puffs inside your child’s ear, to detect for fluid behind the eardrum.
- If the diagnosis is not precise, a device called tympanometry may be used to identify infection.
[ Read: Ear Piercing For Kids ]
How To Treat Ear Infections In Children?
- Your child may be prescribed pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and ear drops to ameliorate the ear pain and fever.
- If the child doesn’t show any symptoms of bacterial infection, the doctor may follow “watchful waiting,” which means that they wait for two to three days for the symptoms to subside. Watchful waiting is done to avoid the unnecessary use of antibiotics.
- But if the pain and other signs don’t decrease or worsen, then the child is put on antibiotics. Antibiotics are also used if the diagnosis confirms a bacterial infection. One of the most common antibiotics for children’s ear infections is amoxicillin.
How Long Does An Ear Infection Last?
The child should start feeling better within two to three days. However, if they still don’t show improvement, then the doctor might change the medicines.
How To Make Your Child Feel Better?
Here are some tips:
- Give your kid fluids, mostly water, to drink in sips and keep them hydrated, especially if they have a fever.
- For pain relief, give them paracetamol, ibuprofen or a combination of paracetamol and codeine.
- Make sure your kid is getting plenty of rest.
- Do not put earbuds to clear any pus or discharge, as it may damage the eardrums.
Home Remedies For Your Child’s Ear Infections
You may follow these home remedies to help your child feel better but talk to your doctor before you do them.
- Sponge: Wrap cool, wet towels around the lower legs of the child for reducing fever.
- Onion packs: Some parents place onion juice packs on the kid’s ear as onions have anti-bacterial and inflammatory qualities.
- Compress: Any moist but warm compress on and around the ears gives relief from pain.
- Hydration: Keep your child hydrated. Swallowing helps the Eustachian tube open, letting the fluids drain.
[ Read: Blood Infection In Children ]
How Can You Prevent Your Child From Getting An Ear Infection?
You can take several measures to prevent your kid from getting an ear infection:
- Do not expose your child to secondhand smoking.
- Have your child use disposable tissues for coughing or blowing their nose.
- Vaccinate your child against flu to prevent the growth of infection-causing bacteria.
- Wash your child’s toys with lukewarm water and clean their play areas and rooms to keep them disinfected.
- Teach healthy habits, such as washing hands frequently, as they stop infections from spreading.
- When a child is sick, limit your child’s exposure to them until they get better.
- Breastfeeding a baby during infancy builds the immunity of the child.
- Ask your kid to use ear plugs or covers while swimming to prevent excess water from entering the ears.
What Happens If Your Child Keeps Getting Ear Infections?
The doctor will try to find out the reason for the recurrence.
- If it is due to poor hygiene or smoking at home, you will need to act on them.
- However, if the infection is coming back due to some health condition, you need to address that problem.
- In some cases, the doctor may recommend a small surgery to insert a ventilation tube. Know more about it in our FAQs below.
- If the tubes do not prevent persistent infections, the doctor may suggest removal of the adenoids (glands), a measure that can stop the infection from spreading to the Eustachian tube.
- Prompt action helps avoid any future complications. Middle ear infection complications are rare but do exist.
What Are The Complications Arising From Ear Infections?
Complications mostly arise due to the spreading of the infection to the other parts of the ear or head. Some such problems are:
- Mastoiditis due to the infection of mastoid bone behind the ears.
- Meningitis as the protective membranes surrounding the brain and spinal cord are infected.
- Labyrinthitis or meningitis due to the inner ear infection.
Other complications that may arise are:
- Loss of hearing, which is usually temporary.
- A perforation of the eardrum.
- Cholesteatoma, which is an abnormal accumulation of skin cells inside the ear.
[ Read: Viral Infection In Children ]
Frequently Asked Questions
1. Can an ear infection in children lead to hearing loss?
Three bones inside the middle ear carry the sound vibrations to the inner ear from the eardrum. The presence of fluids prevents the vibrations from getting transmitted effectively, because of which speech sounds may be muffled. It may cause a moderate loss of hearing, but usually, it is temporary.
However, when otitis media becomes recurrent, it can damage the eardrum, ear bones or the auditory nerves causing permanent loss of hearing.
2. Can children’s ear infections go away on their own?
Yes, most children outgrow their ear infections without antibiotic therapy. That is why doctors often wait and watch if it gets better, before prescribing medicines. Harvard Health research says that 80% of ear infections in kids get better by themselves.
3. When do children need tubes in their ears?
A child may require an air ventilation tube in the ears if antibiotic medications do not show any result. This surgical procedure maintains a balance of airflow and prevents leakage of fluids inside the middle ear.
Such tubes usually stay inside for six to nine months, after which follow-up visits are needed.
4. Why are children more likely than adults to get ear infections?
Eustachian tubes and nasal cavity are smaller in kids than in adults, which make it difficult for the collected fluid to drain out from the ears even during regular days. If the tubes have inflammation or get blocked with mucus due to a cold, it becomes even more difficult for the fluid to get drained.
A child’s immune system is not as developed and stable as an adult’s. It is still in the developing stage, making it harder for children to fight infections.
The adenoids and the tonsils, which prevent bacteria from flowing through the mouse and the nose, are not developed enough. Often, the bacteria trapped in them may cause chronic infection in the Eustachian tubes and middle ear.
Most children get better after an ear infection without any medical intervention. Use the painkillers for a few days, and the problem would be gone. Complications arising from ear infections are rare, but you need to maintain hygiene at home and take care of your child’s health to make sure the infections do not recur.
Has your child suffered from ear infections? What measures did you take? Share your experience with us in the comment section below.