Parents, Lend an Ear

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Ear infections are common in children. Learn how to spot an infection in your little one and ways to help prevent them.

Anyone can develop an ear infection—an inflammation of the middle ear—but they occur much more often in children than in adults. In fact, more than 80 percent of children will experience at least one ear infection by the time they are 3 years old, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Furthermore, ear infections in children are one of the most common reasons to visit the doctor.

Children get more ear infections than adults do because their Eustachian tubes—the tubes that connect the inner ear to the throat—are smaller and get blocked easily, which can allow fluid to pool in the tube. Because children's immune systems are still developing, they're more prone to infections. Any time your little one has a cold, sore throat or an upper respiratory infection, you should always be on the lookout for a bacterial or viral ear infection that can sometimes accompany these illnesses. Your child's risk for ear infections is increased if she is in group childcare or is exposed to secondhand smoke. 

Spotting the Signs

Because most ear infections occur before children are old enough to tell their parents their ear hurts, parents have a harder task in detecting an ear infection in their little ones. However, clues to look for include:

  • Balance problems or clumsiness
  • Crying and/or fussiness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fever
  • Fluid drainage from the ear
  • Pulling or tugging at the ear
  • Trouble hearing

Hear the Good News

While bothersome, ear infections fortunately aren’t difficult to treat. Many doctors will prescribe an antibiotic, such as amoxicillin, if the culprit is a bacterial infection. However, if a virus caused the ear infection, your doctor will probably suggest a wait-and-see approach to see if the infection clears up on its own. Your doctor may also recommend an over-the-counter pain reliever, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen, to help reduce your little one’s fever and ease his ear pain. Your tiny tot should start to feel better within a few days so he can get back to doing what he does best: exploring and absorbing the world.

The Path to Prevention

There are steps you can take to help prevent your child from developing an ear infection. Make sure your child:

  • Gets the flu and 13-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccines
  • Washes hands frequently to curb the spread of germs
  • Has limited or no exposure to smoke
  • Isn’t put to bed with a bottle
  • Isn’t allowed to play with sick children, including sick siblings

The key to ear infection prevention lies in reducing your child’s risk factors, like the ones listed above.

Not-so-scary Surgical Solutions

Unfortunately, some children are more prone to ear infections. If your little one gets ear infections often and they don’t clear up easily or he begins to experience hearing loss or speech delay, your doctor may suggest ear tube surgery—a common minor procedure in which small tubes are placed in the eardrums to boost airflow, equalize pressure and prevent fluid buildup in the middle ear. Most tubes only stay in for six to nine months—sometimes longer—before falling out on their own.

Did You Know?

> Roughly 2 million ear tubes each year are implanted in children to help curb chronic ear infections.

> Pediatricians are increasingly cutting out antibiotic prescriptions for ear infection because the majority of ear infections don’t require medication or any other medical intervention.

> Breastfeeding has been shown to reduce infants’ risk of developing ear infections.

Congratulations on your new little one! Keep your child’s health care on schedule. To find a pediatrician near you, visit Helena Regional Medical Center.