All children experience ear infections, but parents may have difficulty knowing when the child has one. Amra Nasir, MD, medical director for Adventist HealthCare Urgent Care, answers common questions about ear infections and when to seek medical help.
Q – WHAT ARE SYMPTOMS OF AN EAR INFECTION?
Dr. Nasir – Let’s say your very young child is fussy, tearful and tugging at an ear. These are just a few subtle signs of ear infection. Ear drainage, trouble hearing, difficulty sleeping, poor appetite — these are also common signs to look for. Some children even vomit or have diarrhea when an ear is infected.
It’s not always easy to identify the pattern for an ear infection, as there might (or might not) be a fever. But if your child seems ill or has a fever, it’s best to see your pediatrician.
I advise parents to have a rectal thermometer to get an accurate reading; over 102 degrees F is a fever that requires medical attention.
As I always say, if the child just doesn’t seem right, always check with your doctor or your insurance’s nurse advice line. Some doctor’s offices have an on call or after-hours services to help parents.
Q – WHY DO EAR INFECTIONS OCCUR?
Dr. Nasir – An ear infection can be caused by a viral infection like a cold. With an ear infection, your child has pus or fluid that gets trapped behind the eardrum causing reddening or bulging.
It’s important to see a doctor if your child has signs of an ear infection or ear pain to make sure they get the proper treatment.
Parents should also keep in mind that ear pain can be caused by a foreign body including earwax — not an infection. I can’t tell you how often I’ve pulled a little toy or other small objects out of a child’s ear! The ear pain was not an infection at all.
Q – WHAT IS THE TREATMENT FOR AN EAR INFECTION?
Dr. Nasir – Your doctor will examine the child to determine exactly what’s wrong. The treatment will depend on the child’s age and the severity of the infection.
In some cases, an antibiotic is prescribed to heal the infection. Overuse of antibiotics is a concern and most of the time an ear infection can clear up on its own after a few days.
If an antibiotic is not needed, parents can ease the child’s discomfort with ibuprofen or acetaminophen, or pain-relieving eardrops. Some children who have recurrent infections and hearing loss will need tubes placed in their ears to improve drainage.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advises that parents may choose to wait 48 to 72 hours and then start the child on antibiotics if there’s no improvement. If your child has a high fever, always contact your doctor.
Q – IS IT POSSIBLE TO PREVENT EAR INFECTIONS?
Dr. Nasir – You can take a few key steps to help prevent these bothersome infections:
- Breastfeed your infant. Breast milk contains antibodies that are transferred to the child and may protect against ear infections.
- Get your child vaccinated. Your doctor can explain the importance of pneumococcal, flu and meningitis vaccines. Research shows that vaccinated children have fewer ear infections.
- Prevent exposure to secondhand smoke. Studies show that smoke doubles or triples the risk of ear infections.
- Wash hands often. Parents and children should make this a habit, as it prevents the spread of cold and flu viruses — which helps prevent ear infections.
- Get treatment for allergies. A child with mucus from allergies will have blocked ear tubes (Eustachian tubes), which increases the risk of ear infections.