An ear infection is the number one reason parents bring a child to the doctor. While rare in adults, 75% of kids will develop an ear infection by the time they are three years old.
An ear infection most often affects the middle ear and is usually caused by bacteria. Fluid and mucus buildup behind the eardrum causing pressure and, eventually, pain.
Ear infections usually follow a respiratory infection such as a cold or a sore throat. If the ear infection is bacterial, the bacteria will spread to the middle ear causing an ear infection. In a viral infection, the bacteria are "driven" to the middle ear by the virus, resulting in a secondary infection.
Types of ear infections
There are three main types of ear infections, each with its own set of symptoms:
- Acute otitis media (AOM) is the most common type of ear infection and is also known as an "earache." AOM affects the middle ear, causing pain. It is sometimes accompanied by a fever.
- Otitis media with effusion (OME) occurs when fluid remains trapped after the infection has passed. Your child may not exhibit symptoms, although your doctor will be able to diagnose OME.
- Chronic otitis media with effusion (COME) occurs if fluid remains trapped in the middle ear over time. If this happens, your child may not be able to fend off new infections. It can also affect hearing. This type of ear infection is more commonly known as swimmer’s ear.
Most ear infections happen before your child is able to speak. When kids can't tell parents their ears hurt, they may have the following symptoms:
- Pulling or tugging at one or both ears
- Difficulty sleeping
- Difficulty hearing soft sounds
- Fluid discharge from the ear
- Trouble with balance
- Fever (more common in infants and toddlers)
Your child's doctor will begin a diagnosis by asking you if your child has had a cold or sore throat. He will also ask if your child has shown any of the above symptoms. The doctor will then use an instrument called an otoscope to examine the child's eardrum for signs of infection.
An ear infection usually goes away on its own but, if it doesn't, your child may need treatment. Most doctors will prescribe an antibiotic such as amoxicillin. It's important that your child takes the exact dosage over the full amount of time, even if symptoms improve. Your doctor may also recommend over-the-counter pain relievers such as ibuprofen or acetaminophen.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the following to help prevent ear infections in children:
- Avoid exposing your child to secondhand smoke or air pollution
- Make sure children are up to date on their immunizations
- Breastfeed babies for 12 months or more (if possible)
- Bottle feed babies in an upright position
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