An Easy Guide to Ear Infections in Children

Let’s face it: kids come with a lot of noise. But what about when it’s their hearing that’s taking a beating? We’re talking about ear infections, a condition that affects five out six children under three years old and remains the leading reason parents bring their kids to the doctor.

Despite being shockingly common, ear infections can take parents by surprise. They come on quickly, cause intense discomfort, and can be hard to cure. And because small children can’t express themselves clearly, they can go untreated for far too long.

So what’s a parent to do? The first step is understanding what an ear infection is, how to spot the symptoms, and when it’s time to see a doctor.

What is an Ear Infection?

The ear has three main parts: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. Any of these areas can become infected. Middle ear infections, or Otitis Media, are the most common in children.

Ear infections occur when a bacteria or virus infects the middle ear, the air-filled space between your child’s eardrum and inner ear. In a healthy ear, fluid and secretions drain from the middle ear through the Eustachian tube, a small pathway that connects to the throat. When the middle ear is infected, swelling and inflammation block this tube, causing fluid to collect behind the eardrum.

Middle ear infections are so common in children because their Eustachian tubes are very small and easily blocked. They also have undeveloped immune systems that are susceptible to infections.

What causes an ear infection?

Ear infections are caused by bacteria and viruses. According to the CDC, streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae are the most common bacteria causing ear infections. Viral ear infections are usually the result of another respiratory illness like a cold or the flu. An enlarged adenoid can also block the Eustachian tube, creating persistent or frequent ear infections.

It’s important to distinguish middle ear infections from swimmer’s ear, a condition that develops in the outer ear canal. Swimmer’s ear occurs when water is trapped in the ear canal, causing a moist environment that breeds bacteria.

How can I tell if my child has an ear infection?

Small children may not be able to tell you their ears are hurting, so it’s important for parents to recognize the signs of an ear infection. Symptoms usually come on suddenly and can include:

  • Ear pain (particularly when lying down)
  • Tugging or pulling at an ear
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Irritability
  • Fever
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Hearing difficulties
  • Loss of balance

How are ear infections treated?

A doctor can diagnose an ear infection by asking about symptoms and examining your child’s ear. Using an otoscope, a doctor will look inside the ear for signs of infection like fluid, redness, and swelling. If the infection is mild, your doctor may ask you to wait and watch for 2-3 days, as most ear infections will resolve on their own without intervention. Over-the-counter painkillers like ibuprofen or paracetamol can help control pain and reduce fever.

If your child’s ear infection is severe or persistent, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics for seven to ten days. These may be ear drops, oral medications, or a combination of the two. Always finish the full prescription, even if your child is feeling better.

Children with chronic ear infections may undergo a minor procedure to drain the fluid and insert small tubes into the eardrum. This allows air to move into the middle ear and helps prevent future infections.

If you suspect your child has an ear infection, visit our Fairhope walk-in clinic to receive fast and friendly medical care. Our team can diagnose and treat ear infections quickly and compassionately to return your child to comfortable health. Check our waitlist online before you arrive to plan the perfect visit for your family!

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