Ear infections are one of the most common reasons parents bring their child to the doctor. In fact, 5 out of 6 kids will experience at least one ear infection by their third birthday. Children are more likely than adults to get ear infections.
What is an Ear Infection?
The condition, also known as acute otitis media, is an inflammation of the middle ear that occurs when fluid builds up behind the eardrum and becomes infected by bacteria or a virus. Since your child may not yet have the language skills to communicate their pain, it’s important to learn the signs and symptoms of an ear infection, and when it’s time to see a medical provider.
There are different types of ear infections, according to The National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Middle ear infection (acute otitis media) is an infection in the middle ear. A middle ear infection may be caused by:
- Bacteria, like Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenzae —the two most common bacterial causes
- Viruses, like those that cause colds or flu
Another condition that affects the middle ear is called otitis media with effusion. This occurs usually after an ear infection has already come and gone, but fluid again becomes trapped behind the eardrum. This type of ear infection may not cause distinct symptoms, but a healthcare professional will be able to see the fluid in the child’s ear.
When the outer ear canal is infected, the condition is called swimmer’s ear, which is different from a middle ear infection. This occurs when fluid persists in the middle ear for a longer period of time and returns multiple times even though there may not be an infection. It can affect a child’s hearing and make it more difficult for them to battle new infections.
Common symptoms of middle ear infection in children can include:
- Ear pain
- Fever (100°F or higher)
- Irritable, fussier than usual
- Rubbing or tugging at an ear
- Ear pain that’s worse when lying down
- Crying more than usual
- Difficulty hearing and/or failing to respond to sounds
- Difficulty balancing
- Drainage from the ear
- Difficulty sleeping
- Loss of appetite
These symptoms can indicate a number of conditions, so it’s important to get an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment from a medical provider.
When to Seek Medical Care
See a doctor if your child has:
- A fever of 102°F or higher
- Pus, discharge, or fluid coming from the ear
- Worsening symptoms
- Symptoms of a middle ear infection that last for more than 2 to 3 days
- Hearing loss
A medical provider will determine which type of illness your child has by asking about symptoms and doing a physical examination. Your doctor can make the diagnosis of a middle ear infection by looking inside your child’s ear to examine the eardrum and see if there is pus in the middle ear.
Antibiotics are often not needed for middle ear infections because the body’s immune system can fight off the infection on its own. However, sometimes antibiotics are needed to treat severe cases right away or cases that last longer than 2 to 3 days.
For mild cases of middle ear infection, your doctor might recommend watchful waiting or delayed antibiotic prescribing.
- Watchful waiting: Your child’s doctor may suggest watching and waiting to see if your child needs antibiotics. This gives the immune system time to fight off the infection. If your child doesn’t feel better after 2 to 3 days of rest, extra fluids, and pain relievers, the doctor may write a prescription for an antibiotic.
- Delayed prescribing: Your child’s doctor may give an antibiotic prescription, but suggest that you wait 2 to 3 days to see if your child is still sick before filling it.
How to Feel Better
Some ways to feel better, whether or not antibiotics are needed for an ear infection, include:
- Drink extra water or other fluids
- Take acetaminophen or ibuprofen to relieve pain or fever. Ask your doctor or pharmacist about over-the-counter medicines that can help you feel better. Always use over-the-counter medicines as directed
You can help prevent ear infections by doing your best to stay healthy and keep others healthy including:
- Receive recommended vaccines, such as flu vaccine and pneumococcal vaccine. Pneumococcal vaccine protects against a common cause of middle ear infections, Streptococcus pneumonia
- Clean your hands
Where To Go
If you suspect you or your child has an ear infection, our dedicated team at Advanced Urgent Care & Occupational Medicine is here for you! You can stop by any of our convenient locations across the Denver metro area today. We’re open 7 days a week, 8 am to 8 pm. Schedule a visit or walk-in today!