Ear infections are very common in small children. Most cases of ear infections are not serious, but they can be very painful.
At Banner Children’s, we’re here to help. Below, we share all you need to know about ear infections and treatments.
An ear infection happens when fluid containing bacteria or viruses gets trapped in the ear, causing an infection.
Ear infections are common in babies and young children. Most children will have an ear infection before age 3.
The most common type of ear infection in children is acute middle ear infection (otitis media).
When an ear is infected, the eustachian tube (the narrow tunnel that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat) becomes blocked. When this happens, fluid does not drain away from the middle ear as it usually does. This may cause an infection.
Children can also develop ear infections in the outer ear and ear canal (otitis externa). Otitis externa is also known as swimmer’s ear because bacteria can grow in the water left in the ear after swimming or bathing.
An ear infection in children usually follows a cold, sore throat, sinus infection or allergies.
Babies and younger children get more ear infections than older children and adults because their eustachian tubes and immune systems are still growing.
Young children have short and narrow eustachian tubes, making it more likely for fluid to get stuck. As children get older these tubes grow longer and have a steeper angle, so they drain better, making ear infections less likely to happen.
Several other things can also increase a child’s risk for ear infections:
Ear infections are not contagious, but the bacteria or virus that caused the infection can be passed to other people. Most ear infections happen after a child already has a cold or upper respiratory infection.
Most older children can tell you their ear hurts, but babies, toddlers and non-verbal children don’t have the language skills to tell you their ear hurts.
Here are some tell-tale signs your child has an ear infection:
If you suspect your child has an ear infection, it’s important to have them checked by their health care provider.
The provider will do a physical exam and look inside their ear with a small lighted instrument called an otoscope. If the ear is infected, they will give you a treatment plan.
Treatment may depend on many factors, including your child’s age, how painful it is and if the fluid stays in the middle ear for a long time.
Because many children with ear infections get better without treatment, your provider may not immediately recommend antibiotics.
This “wait and see” option lowers the use of unnecessary antibiotics and their side effects. Also, overuse of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic-resistant bacteria, making it much harder for everyone to treat infections.
Treatment usually begins with the following:
If your child has a moderate to severe infection, or if symptoms don’t improve or get worse, your child’s health care provider may prescribe antibiotics (such as amoxicillin) to treat the infection.
Most children take an antibiotic for five to 10 days, and most feel better after a day or two. Even if your child is feeling better, though, they must take the entire prescription. The infection can return if your child doesn’t take all of the medicine.
Your child may need ear tubes if they have frequent ear infections or trouble hearing.
Glue ear, or otitis media with effusion, is a chronic (ongoing) condition where fluid builds up in the middle ear and doesn’t go away. It might not cause pain, but it can make it hard for your child to hear.
An ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT) will insert a small tube (grommet) into the eardrum. The tube helps keep air pressure normal on both sides of the eardrum and helps fluid drain. Your child will be able to go home after the short procedure.
The tubes usually stay in place for 12 to 18 months. They may fall out on their own or the ENT specialist may need to remove them. Once the tubes are gone, the holes will heal and close.
Children with the following symptoms should be seen by a health care provider immediately (within hours):
Call or see your child’s health care provider if the following symptoms occur:
Here are some ways you may be able to lower the risk of ear infections:
Banner Children’s caring staff is here to help treat, diagnose and guide you through every phase of your child’s life.
Most ear infections get better quickly and are not serious. If you want to know more about medical care, schedule an appointment with one of our pediatric specialists.