Victoria is a stay-at-home mom, author, educator, and blogger at Healthy at Home. She currently lives in Colorado with her family.
Ear infections are one of the most frustrating illnesses for both parents and children to go through, especially if they occur frequently. They are also one of the most common ailments that affects young children. As WebMD shares, over 60% of colds in infants and toddlers result in an ear infection. And since babies can't tell us what's wrong with them, these infections are even worse to handle and try to diagnose as a parent.
I had frequent ear infections as a child and ended up having to have surgery done on my ears so that they would drain. Even as an adult, this is a frequent problem for me. I regularly watch children and lately, it seems that just about every family I take care of has a least one child that is currently suffering from an ear infection.
Ear infections are the second most commonly diagnosed illness in children in the United States, next to just a simple cold. About 50% of babies born in the United States have at least one ear infection by the time they turn one year, and 75% of them have at least one ear infection before their third birthday.
What does this mean for you and your children? What can you do to prevent them? And what happens if one or more of your little ones get an ear infection? I'll discuss that in this article. Many parents don't know how to correctly diagnose whether or not their child has an ear infection, and what to do if this is the case. I will be answering all of these questions for you.
What are Ear Infections?
An ear infection is most often a bacterial or viral infection that affects the middle ear, the air-filled space behind the eardrum that contains the tiny vibrating bones of the ear. Ear infections happen when fluid gets built up in that space behind your baby's eardrum and then becomes infected.
Ear infections are very painful because of the pressure put on the eardrum from the inflammation and buildup of this fluid. (Mayo Clinic) With research and careful monitoring, you too can determine if your child might be suffering from an ear infection and get him or her to the doctor much faster.
What Do Ear Infections Look Like?
You can’t exactly see an ear infection, and your child will likely not be able to tell you exactly what’s happening. The biggest symptom to look for is ear pain. I know immediately when I have an ear infection now because it feels like there’s something inside my ear pressing on my ear drum and it hurts and itches.
Most ear infections are immediately preceded by a cold. Coughing, sneezing, sleeping at odd times of the day in funny places, and a runny nose will be your first indicators. Not that every cold turns into an ear infection, but this is how they begin. However, clear mucus from a runny nose will turn yellow or green before an ear infection sets in.
The next sign you’ll see is a low grade fever, as this is a sign that your little one’s body is fighting off the infection, and extreme discomfort. This may relay into increased fussiness during the day or night, frequently night-waking with tears, and discomfort when lying flat or eating.
And it just gets worse from there. You may find that your little one is messing with their ear(s), and I don’t mean playing, but with obvious signs of pain or extreme discomfort. All I can do when I have an ear infection is press on the infected ear. It hurts and it itches and pressing on it makes it feel a little better. If he or she is old enough, you will hear complaints about pain inside the infected ear.
Finally, as if these weren’t enough signs that you needed to get to the doctor, you may start noticing that your child cannot hear you as well, or isn’t responding to sounds normally. Then comes the ear drainage. The drainage is usually yellow or green and stinks really bad.
If you see blood or pus draining out of his ear, then he probably has a ruptured eardrum. DON'T WORRY! These almost always heal just fine, and once the eardrum ruptures the pain subsides a little. (Ask Dr. Sears)
Many of these same symptoms could mean a dozen different things though, most commonly teething. How do you know the difference? Good question.
Ear Infections vs Teething
Many parents have experienced taking their children to the doctor for possible ear infections only to find out that it’s just teething pain. It sounds funny, but they experience a lot of the same symptoms, like messing with their ears and expressing extreme discomfort. This is simply because tooth and gum pain make your ears hurt as well.
There are minor differences in teething pain that will help you know the difference. The biggest one is that if your little one is tugging at her ears with no cold symptoms or fever accompanying it, it is likely not an ear infection. The cold virus is normally the cause of the ear infection, so without it, there’s no reason for the infection.
You may see the fussiness and/or night waking, but also with no cold symptoms or fever. However, the teething pain and stress may end up producing a low grade fever, but teething pain does not cause a runny nose. Finally, teething pain in your infant will start around four months of age and will continue off and on until her two-year molars are in. An ear infection will start as a simple cold and will increase in intensity fast. (Ask Dr. Sears)
How Do I Know If My Baby Has an Ear Infection?
The onset of signs and symptoms of ear infection is usually swift. It all starts with a simple cold. No fear, everybody gets cold from time to time and they go away on their own. In fact, if you go to the doctor with a cold, all you get is a doctor bill and advice to go home and rest and drink lots of liquids.
However, this goes from being a simple cold to something more serious in children really fast. You’ll see your little one acting more irritable than usual and possibly having trouble sleeping. You may see an increased clumsiness or loss of balance and a loss of appetite.
She’ll get a fever, a sure sign that something is wrong, and finally may start having difficulty hearing or responding to sounds. If you’ve gotten to the ear drainage stage, you’ve already let it go too far.
The signs and symptoms that accompany (or precede) an ear infection can indicate a number of different conditions. If you are concerned that what your child has is more than just a simple cold, it's always okay to make a doctor’s appointment. And if it is something more dangerous, you’ll want to get an accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment for your little one.
Ear infections are painful (sometimes more so for the parents than the children). Don’t hesitate to call your child's doctor if your infant or toddler is having trouble sleeping or showing more than normal irritability after a cold or other upper respiratory infection.
If your little one’s fever lasts for more than a day, if her ear pain is severe, and especially if you observe a discharge of fluid, pus or bloody discharge from the ear, her body is telling you to get her to a doctor immediately. The sooner you get a diagnoses and a treatment, the less pain she will be in and the less likely that something more dangerous can develop.
The Dangers of Ear Infections in Infants
Ear infections aren’t normally dangerous, but they can be. A severe or untreated ear infection can eventually rupture your child's eardrum. Ruptures don't happen very often and they generally heal quickly, but they can be very painful for your little one.
Repeated ear infections, even if treated each and every time, can lead to scarring within the ear and even hearing loss in the long run. In very rare cases, untreated repeated ear infections can develop into an infection of the skull behind the ear (mastoiditis) or even meningitis.
Also, professionals in this area suggest that hearing loss resulting from persistent ear infections can delay your child’s language development, and provide for specific hearing difficulties later in life, especially when listening to speech in a noisy environment like a classroom. (Baby Center)
It's important to see your pediatrician the moment your think your little one may have an ear infection so it can be caught early and treated. It’s also important to schedule a visit even after you think it’s over for a follow-up, just to make sure that the infection has completely cleared up and that his ears are healing well.
Did I Do Something to Cause Them?
It’s not likely that you did anything to cause an ear infection in your little one. Ear infections are usually caused by bacteria or a virus, when fluid builds up in the area behind your baby's eardrum and then becomes infected.
There are many factors that may make your child more susceptible to ear infections though. I doubt any of them will surprise you. One of them is simply their age. Between the ages of 6 months and 2 years old, your little one is more prone to get ear infections simply because of the size and shape of the eustachian tubes in their ears (as seen in the video), and because of their still developing immune systems.
Children who attend daycare or preschools in their infant and toddler years are also more likely to get colds and ear infections due to their exposure to so many more infections. It has been proven that those children that stay at home for their care during this fragile time are much less likely to develop sicknesses altogether.
Little ones who are bottle-fed, especially those lying down when eating, tend to have more ear infections than do babies who are breastfed. Much of this is due to the position of the baby when eating as much as it is the immune system building nutrients that they are getting from the breast milk.
Another huge factor, as it is with adults, that affects baby’s health is the season. Ear infections occur mostly during the fall and winter when colds and flu are prevalent. Those individuals with weaker immune systems, those that do not practice good cleaning habits, or those with poor diet or exercise habits are most susceptible to illness at this time.
Although ear infections themselves are not contagious, those respiratory illnesses that precede and accompany ear infections are very contagious, and may easily be passed on to infants and toddlers.
Poor air quality is one of the final causes of ear infections in children. We all know the risks of cigarette smoke, even second-hand, to a child’s health. But did you know that exposure to tobacco smoke or even high levels of air pollution can increase the risk of ear infection in small children? (Mayo Clinic)
Not only is it important to take a look at the individuals surrounding your family and their habits, but you should also pay close attention to the environment in which you live and they play, as it may be playing a significant role in your child’s well-being.
- Warm Compress
- Warm Bath or Shower
- Acetaminophen (for Infants or Children)
- Ibuprofen (for Infants or Children)
- Good Hygiene Habits
- Healthy Diet and Exercise
- Stay Away From Cigarette Smoke
What Can I Do to Help My Baby Feel Better?
Many ear infections often clear up on their own. A visit to your pediatrician may simply end with a recommendation for simply managing pain and monitoring the problem to make sure it isn’t getting any worse. In the meantime, there are many options you can offer your child for relief from the pain and discomfort they may be feeling from the infection.
You may want to start by simply offering a warm, moist washcloth to place over the affected ear. The heat and moisture (the humidity) may give your little one some release from the itching and lessen the pain. A nice warm shower or bath, and even a humidifier, can do the same thing and help relieve the pain a little.
The only other suggestion your pediatrician will likely give you is to use an Infant or Children specific pain medication like Tylenol. You can get many different medications such as this over-the-counter. Acetaminophen (Tylenol, PediaCare) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) will both relieve the pain. Make sure that you are getting the Infant/Children's version and use the drugs as directed on the label.
Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers, because aspirin has been linked to other complication in young children and teens. Although aspirin is approved for use in children older than age 2, children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin. Talk to your pediatrician if you have any concerns or would simply like a recommendation.
Babies with multiple ear infections may end up needing ear tubes. The ear tube procedure is performed on about 600,000 children in the United States each year. I had to have ear tubes in both of my ears for my repeated ear infections as a child, and I got them at 5 years of age. (Don’t worry. I don’t remember any of it.)
During this procedure, which is done under general anesthesia, an otolaryngologist makes a tiny incision in your child's eardrum and inserts a small tube into the slit. The tubes act to release the pressure inside the ear(s) and act as a vent, letting air in and fluid out so bacteria can't flourish. This procedure should essentially eliminate your child’s ear infections altogether.
Is There Anything I Can Do to Prevent Them?
Babies are already easily susceptible to ear infections because of their underdeveloped systems, so they need extra care in handling and hygiene to stay as healthy as possible during these formative years. Consider a few handy tips for helping your little one to avoid any and all illnesses and you’ll have given her the best chance at a healthy future.
Wash your hands. This seems simple, but we are all covered in a variety of germs and bacteria at all times. It’s literally impossible not to get someone else’s coodies every day unless you intend on living alone and becoming a hermit, and even then you are exposed to germs.
So in order reduce the spread of germs in your home and to your children, wash your hands (and your child's hands) often, but especially after using the toilet, changing diapers, and before eating or preparing food. Teach your children to use tissues and/or to cough and sneeze into their elbows, as they are less likely to spread contagious germs that way.
Make sure they get regular baths, with soap, and keep your house clean. It never hurts to have a bottle of Lysol on hand to kill unwanted germs on door handles, the side of the crib, your child’s toys, etc. during the “sick” months of the year. I’m definitely not saying to be obsessive, but just be smart.
Keep your baby up to date on his vaccines. I understand that there is a big debate on whether or not to allow your baby to be vaccinated, but immunizations help prevent the illnesses that can lead to an ear infection, along with many other well-known illnesses and diseases.
For example, the Hib vaccine has helped tremendously in reducing the number of ear infections in babies, and the pneumococcal vaccine can help to prevent them as well. If your baby has suffered repeated ear infections, you may want to consider getting her flu vaccine every year to begin building up her immune system to it. However, I always recommend talking to your pediatrician first before making any big decisions. Only children at least 6 months old or older can get a flu shot. Any younger and their delicate systems simply aren’t strong enough to handle it.
Breastfeed your baby for at least the first six months, if at all possible. A study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Food and Drug Administration, which appeared in the journal Pediatrics, showed that children who are breastfed for the first six months of life are less likely to develop ear infections. It’s truly amazing what mothers are able to provide for their babies in their breast milk. Breast milk not only gives babies the crucial antibodies needed to build their immune systems, but also the life giving vitamins and nutrients necessary for strong bones and a healthy mind, but a strong and healthy future.
In fact, the risk of ear infections was 70% greater in formula-fed babies. Formula simply doesn’t provide all of the needed vitamins, nutrients, or antibodies that infants so direly need at such a fragile time in their lives. Practitioners such as Robert Ruben, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) at Montefiore Medical Center in New York, believe that mothers transfer certain immune-building antibodies to their babies through breast milk. Those antibodies seem to diminish after the six-month mark, however. (Baby Center)
Finally, and most importantly, keep your baby away from all tobacco smoke. Researchers have concluded that kids whose parents smoke are more likely to get ear infections and have hearing problems. And these are not the only consequences. Children exposed to cigarette smoke in the womb, outside the womb, or through second-hand smoke in either circumstance (yes, even in the womb) are more likely to get a wide range of illness, including SIDS, GERD, whooping cough, asthma, ear infections, colds, strep throat, and many more.
Even a weekend spent in a house with a smoker can significantly harm a baby and raise his chances of getting an ear infection (and other illnesses). Tobacco smoke suppresses the immune system, which is something your baby isn’t strong enough to handle at so small and fragile an age, making it more difficult for your baby to fight off infection. Don't let people smoke in your house, and keep your baby out of smoky environments. (WebMD)
Although ear infections are an extremely common occurrence in infants and toddlers, there are many things you can do to prevent your child from getting them. However, if you do fall prey to this illness, there are also a variety of methods you can use to help your little feel better and even to kick those ear infections altogether.
By simply being more educated on the topic, you are giving your children a much better chance at a healthy life, and will spare them a great deal of pain and discomfort. Good for you!
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2013 Victoria Van Ness
Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on October 14, 2013:
Thank you!! I'm so glad you liked it!
Casey Johnson from Sanger, Texas on October 14, 2013:
Great article. Very useful. Voted up.
Victoria Van Ness (author) from Fountain, CO on October 05, 2013:
Good. I'm glad you liked it. I have covered many more common childhood illnesses in other articles. You should check them out for more helpful information.
Eric Dierker from Spring Valley, CA. U.S.A. on October 05, 2013:
Very interesting and helpful. Good stuff to know.