Signs of an ear infection and an updated approach to treatment

January 31, 2019 | by Darius Radvila, D.O.
Categories: Healthy Driven Moms

Have you seen your child tugging at his or her ear lately?

Ear infections are the most common reason parents bring their child to a doctor, says the National Institutes of Health (NIH). And, 5 out of 6 children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday.

Usually an ear infection follows a cold or other upper respiratory illness. The most common ear infection is called acute otitis media (AOM), where fluid is trapped behind the eardrum and parts of the middle ear are infected and swollen.

Since their ear passages are narrower and shorter, children are more prone to ear infections than adults.

Most ear infections happen to children before they’ve learned how to talk, so the symptoms may be difficult to detect.

How do you know if your child has an ear infection if they can’t tell you it hurts? The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) lists these signs to look for:

  • Tugging or pulling at the ear(s)
  • Fussiness, more crying than usual, especially when lying down
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fever (especially in infants and younger children) or headache
  • Fluid coming out of the ears
  • Trouble hearing

Sometimes ear pain isn’t caused by infection. Your child may simply have fluid in the ear. The only way to know for sure is to call the doctor.

Your child’s doctor can check for signs of infection by using a lighted instrument, called an otoscope, to look at the eardrum. A red, bulging eardrum means there’s an infection.

Even if your child has an ear infection, your doctor may not recommend antibiotics. More studies are showing that antibiotics may not necessarily speed recovery. Common ear infections often resolve on their own, as roughly 80 percent of children with acute ear infections get better without antibiotic treatment.

The AAP recommends that pediatricians now adopt a wait-and-see approach, rather than prescribing antibiotics at the first sign of infection. Also, ear tubes are now generally reserved for children with multiple infections and recurring hearing problems.

If your child is older than 6 months and doesn’t have severe ear pain or a fever, your doctor may recommend you wait 2-3 days and see if he/she improves. Numbing drops and over-the-counter pain relievers may help your child feel better as she/he recovers.

What can parents do to prevent ear infections? The AAP offers suggestions to reduce the risk:

  • Don’t smoke around your child. Secondhand smoke exposure is a huge contributor to childhood illness, including ear infections. Quitting is just as important for your child’s health as your own.
  • Practice proper handwashing. Teach your child to wash their hands frequently. It’s the first line of defense against germs and can help prevent the spread of many illnesses.
  • If possible, breastfeed for the first year. Research shows that breastfed children are less likely to have bacterial or viral infections, such as ear infections.
  • Stay up-to-date with vaccines. Studies show that vaccinated children experience fewer ear infections. Make sure your child gets a flu shot each year, and ask your doctor about vaccines that protect against pneumonia and meningitis.

Need a primary care doctor for your child? Edward-Elmhurst Health has hundreds of board-certified physicians to choose from. You can book online today to set up your first appointment.

Learn about children’s services at Edward-Elmhurst Health.

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