Newborn Medical Series: Otitis Media (Ear Infections)
Otitis Media, or an ear infection, is when fluid and infection can build up in the inner ear causing pain in the ear, fever, and trouble hearing. Ear infections are common in children and infants.
Ear infections often occur in children after they get a cold. Fluid can build up in the middle part of the inner ear, behind the eardrum. This fluid can become infected and press on the eardrum, causing it to bulge. This causes symptoms.
In some children, some fluid can stay in the ear for weeks to months after the pain and infection have gone away. This fluid can cause hearing loss that is usually mild and temporary. If the hearing loss last a long time, it can sometimes lead to problems with language and speech, especially in children who are at risk for problems with language or learning.
Pulling on the ear
Being more fussy or less active than usual
Having no appetite and not eating as much as normal
Vomiting or diarrhea
Temporary hearing loss
If you think your child has an ear infection, see a doctor or nurse. The doctor or nurse should be able to tell if your child has an ear infection. He or she will ask about symptoms, do an exam, and look in your child’s ears. Whenever in doubt, always contact your child’s pediatrician.
Medications: Most doctors do not recommend treating ear infections with cold and cough medicines. These medicines can have dangerous side effects in young children. Your child’s pediatrician will most likely recommend antibiotics. These medicines kill the bacteria that caused the ear infections. Doctors do not always prescribe these medications right away, however. That’s because many ear infections are caused by viruses, not bacteria. Antibiotics do not kill viruses. Many children can also get over an ear infection on their own, without antibiotics. To help relieve pain or fever, doctors may also recommend you use Tylenol or ibuprofen. You can find our guide to giving children Tylenol and ibuprofen here, or always consult with your pediatrician.
Surgeries: In some cases, your child may not be able to clear all the fluid on his or her own. Your doctor may then recommend a surgery to place an ear tube (tympanostomy). The surgery involves placing small tubes in your child’s eardrum to slowly drain the fluid. Eventually the ear tubes fall out on their own, and your child can clear the infection. Ear tubes are also very common in children.
You can help prevent ear infections for your child by following the same rules for preventing all colds. Frequent handwashing, routine vaccinations, and general hygiene can help reduce the likelihood your child gets sick, therefore reducing the chance of ear infections. For more tips on how to prevent colds, check out our guide here.
This video on YouTube has a wonderful explanation of ear tubes and ear infections.
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Jeri Ford, RN, BSN, CPN
Children’s Hospital of Los Angeles