Recognizing and Treating Ear Infections in Children

Parents of young children are no stranger to sickness, especially when it comes to ear infections. According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, ear infections are the most common reason parents bring their child to a doctor.

When it comes to babies, parents need to have an eagle eye to be sure to catch the often subtle signs their little ones may be sick. Ear infection symptoms include pulling on the ear, irritability, decreased appetite, fever, nausea and vomiting, and sleep changes.

“Any concern parents have should be followed up,” said Stephanie Cole, MD, an otolaryngologist with ProMedica Physicians Ear, Nose and Throat. “If they think their child is not acting the way he or she usually does, follow your instinct about it.”

What is an ear infection?

An ear infection is a bacterial or viral infection in the middle ear – the space behind the eardrum. They can occur when viral or respiratory illnesses cause swelling, mucus and inflammation that blocks the Eustachian tubes – the tubes that connect the middle ear to the back of the throat. When the tubes are blocked, fluid cannot drain from the ear and air pressure is not regulated. In babies, the tubes are narrower and more horizontal, making them more difficult to drain and more likely to get clogged.

“There really isn’t a good way to prevent ear infections,” said Dr. Cole. “The key thing is keeping the nose healthy so we can keep the ears healthy, too.”

To help reduce your child’s risk of developing an ear infection, prevent common colds and other illnesses by minimizing your child’s exposure to sick people and washing your hands frequently. Avoid secondhand smoke by staying in smoke-free environments. Breastfeeding for at least six months may reduce the risk of ear infections. If you bottle-feed your child, hold the baby in an upright position. Make sure childhood immunizations are up to date.

How are ear infections treated?

There are several treatment options for ear infections. Sometimes, doing nothing is the best course of action.

“Studies show that ear infections can resolve over time – when we allow the upper respiratory issue to resolve, the ear infection may go away,” said Dr. Cole.

Antibiotics are typically given when there are acute symptoms such as fever, pain and hearing loss associated with the fluid behind the ear drums.

If a child has six infections in one year, four infections in six months, persistent fluid over three months, hearing loss or other complications from ear infections, ear tubes may be needed. During an outpatient surgical procedure, surgeons make a small incision in the ear drum, drain any built-up fluid, and insert a tube. The tubes stay in place for six months to a year and usually fall out on their own.

“The tubes allow the pressure in the middle ear to equalize and fluid to drain from the middle ear so it doesn’t build up and cause infections,” said Dr. Cole. “They also provide a route to deliver antibiotics, if needed.

Stephanie Cole, MD is an otolaryngologist with ProMedica Physicians Ear, Nose and Throat. Learn more about ear, nose and throat conditions.