Ear Infections: Symptoms & Prevention

It's not your imagination. Kids can get a lot of ear infections. In fact, 2 out of 3 times, when kids get colds, they also wind up with infections in their ears. The main reasons are that their immune systems are immature and that their little ears don't drain as well as adults' ears do.

Swimmer's Ear

An infection in the outer ear is often called Swimmer's Ear. It usually happens when the ear stays wet long enough to breed germs. But even if your kid hasn't been swimming, a scratch from something like a cotton swab (or who knows what kids stick in there?) can cause trouble. Watch out if your child's ear gets itchy or hurts when touched. The answer is usually just medicated ear drops and keeping ears dry.

Diagnosing an Ear Infection

The only way to know for sure if your child has an ear infection is for a doctor to check inside her ear with a device called an otoscope. This is basically just a tiny flashlight with a magnifying lens for the doctor to look through. A healthy eardrum (shown here) looks sort of clear and pinkish-gray. An infected eardrum looks red and swollen.

Inside Your Ear

The Eustachian tube is a canal that connects your middle ear to your throat. It keeps fluid and air pressure from building up inside your ear. Colds, flu, and allergies can all irritate the Eustachian tube and cause it to swell up.

Fluid in the Ear

If the Eustachian tube gets blocked, fluid builds up inside your child's middle ear. This makes the perfect breeding ground for bacteria and viruses, which can cause infections. Your doctor may look inside your child's ear with an otoscope, which can blow a puff of air to make his eardrum vibrate. If his eardrum doesn't vibrate as much as it should, chances are there's fluid inside.

Bursting an Eardrum

If too much fluid or pressure builds up inside your child's middle ear, her eardrum can actually burst (shown here). If that happens, you may see yellow, brown, or white fluid draining from her ear. Although this sounds scary, the eardrum usually heals itself in a couple of weeks. Unless it happens a lot, your child's hearing should be fine. The good news is that the pain may suddenly disappear because the hole lets the pressure go.

Ear Infection Symptoms

The main warning sign of infection is sharp ear pain. Your child may be especially uncomfortable lying down, so he might have a hard time sleeping. Other problems to look for:

  • Trouble hearing
  • Fever
  • Fluid oozing from ears
  • Dizziness
  • Stuffy nose

Ear Infection Symptoms: Babies

With babies or children who are too young to tell you what hurts, ear infections can be sneaky. A lot of times they'll start tugging or pulling on an ear. Little kids can also just get cranky, have trouble sleeping, or not eat well. Babies may push their bottles away because pressure in their ears makes it hurt to swallow.

Home Care for Ear Infections

While the immune system fights the infection, there are things you can do to fight your child's pain. Applying a warm washcloth on the outside of the ear can be soothing. Ear drops can give quick relief, but check with your doctor before using them. Non-prescription painkillers and fever reducers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, are also an option. DO NOT give aspirin to children.

Antibiotics for Ear Infections

Ear infections often go away on their own, so don't be surprised if your doctor suggests a "wait and see" approach. The more we use antibiotics, the less effective they become. That's because bacteria learn to fight back against common medicines. Also, some ear infections are caused by a virus, and antibiotics only work on bacteria. Yes, antibiotics can help, but your doctor will know best when to use them.

Complications of Ear infections

If your child's ear infections keep coming back, they can scar his eardrums and lead to hearing loss, speech problems, or even meningitis. If he has lots of them, you might want to have his hearing tested just in case.

Ear Tubes

For stubborn ear infections that just won't go away, doctors sometimes insert small tubes through the eardrums. The tubes let fluid drain out of the middle ear and stop it from building back up again. This can ease the pressure or pain and clear up hearing problems. The tubes are usually left in for 8 to 18 months. Most often they fall out on their own.

Tonsils Can Be the Cause

Sometimes a child's tonsils get so swollen that they put pressure on the Eustachian tubes connecting her middle ear to her throat -- which then causes infections. If that keeps happening, she may need to have her tonsils taken out.

Preventing Ear Infections

The biggest cause of middle ear infections is the common cold, so avoiding cold viruses is good for ears, too. The best way to stop germs is to make sure your child washes her hands well and often. Other ways to prevent ear infections include keeping your child away from secondhand smoke, getting annual flu shots, and breastfeeding your baby for at least 6 months to boost her immune system.

Allergies and Ear Infections

Like colds, allergies can also irritate the Eustachian tubes and contribute to middle ear infections. If you can't keep your child away from whatever's bothering him, consider having him tested to identify the triggers. Medicine or allergy shots may provide relief and stop the ear infections, too.


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