Ear Infection In Kids: Symptoms, Treatment And Home Remedies

Ear Infection In Children

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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 causes an ear infection? How to identify it and treat it? Momjunction answers these questions and more. Read on.

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).
Acute otitis externa (AOE)

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  • Middle ear infections or otitis media (OM) is of two types again (3):
Middle ear infections or otitis media (OM)

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  • 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.

As mentioned earlier, ear infections are common in babies and younger children than in older children or adults because the Eustachian tube is weaker.

[ 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).

Ear infections mostly happen due to bacteria, usually after a cold, sore throat or any respiratory disease. Let’s see them in detail.

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.

Bacterial or viral infections lead to such blockages. The following are the most common causes of ear infections in children (5) (6):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. Sometimes, foreign objects like cotton swabs or bobby pins can cause cuts and bruises, leading to AOE or acute otitis externa.
  4. Swimming in infected water can cause AOE.

While ear infections are common, some children have a higher risk than others.

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.

Note that these increase the risk but are not the only reasons for ear infections. Infections can happen even in the absence of these factors.

[ 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.

Mild ear infections might go away without medication. But in some cases, you will need medical assistance.

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

The doctor will conduct a few tests to confirm the ear infection. We’ll see what they are, in the next section.

How Is An Ear Infection Diagnosed?

Here is the diagnosis process (8) (9):

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. If the diagnosis is not precise, a device called tympanometry may be used to identify infection.

If the diagnosis confirms an ear infection, the doctor would suggest the course of treatment.

[ Read: Ear Piercing For Kids ]

How To Treat Ear Infections In Children?

Doctors usually recommend the following treatment measures and ear infection medicines (10) (11):

  1. Your child may be prescribed pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, and ear drops to ameliorate the ear pain and fever.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

After medical treatment, it is essential to have a follow-up with the doctor to make sure that the infection is completely removed.

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.

Your child can recover faster if you complement the treatment with home care and home remedies.

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.

Ear infection leads to unbearable pain, making the child feel restless. Therefore, spare them from the pain by preventing the disease.

[ 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:

  1. Do not expose your child to secondhand smoking.
  2. Have your child use disposable tissues for coughing or blowing their nose.
  3. Vaccinate your child against flu to prevent the growth of infection-causing bacteria.
  4. Wash your child’s toys with lukewarm water and clean their play areas and rooms to keep them disinfected.
  5. Teach healthy habits, such as washing hands frequently, as they stop infections from spreading.
  6. When a child is sick, limit your child’s exposure to them until they get better.
  7. Breastfeeding a baby during infancy builds the immunity of the child.
  8. Ask your kid to use ear plugs or covers while swimming to prevent excess water from entering the ears.

If you do not take preventive measures, ear infections might recur in your child.

What Happens If Your Child Keeps Getting Ear Infections?

The doctor will try to find out the reason for the recurrence.

  1. If it is due to poor hygiene or smoking at home, you will need to act on them.
  2. However, if the infection is coming back due to some health condition, you need to address that problem.
  3. In some cases, the doctor may recommend a small surgery to insert a ventilation tube. Know more about it in our FAQs below.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

In the next section, we answer some specific questions related to ear infections in children.

[ 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.

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MA English Pursuing Child Nutrition and Cooking from Stanford UniversitySudipta is an English Major from the University of Hyderabad. Has considerable medical research writing experience, but also enjoys creative writing and the arts. Her writings aim to make highly scientific/ health material easy to understand for a common reader.She is also a National Novel Writing Month awardee. Sudipta loves to hit the roads to find stories and motivation to fill up her canvases and the pages of her diary.
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