Everything you need to know about your child and ear infections

If you’ve ever had to take your child to the doctor for an ear infection, you’re not alone! Ear infections are one of the most common pediatric conditions we treat at our Urgent Care Centers, and the most common reason why children are prescribed antibiotics. Ear infections are so common that three out of four children will have had an ear infection by their third birthday, affecting more than 9 million children in the U.S. each year.

So, parents, we’re here to help! Here’s everything you need to know about your child and ear infections.

1) Ear infections often start with a cold

Ear infections tend to happen when fluid gets trapped behind the eardrum and then is colonized with bacteria, which causes the infection. One of the most common causes of ear infections in children is the common cold. During a cold, the excess mucus can back up into the eustachian tube (the small tube that connects the nose to the middle ear). Once the mucus settles in the middle ear, bacteria in the nose, sinuses and respiratory tract can infect the mucus, leading to a bacterial middle ear infection (also called otitis media).

2) There are several key symptoms to watch out for

In young and/or non-verbal children, parents should watch out for unusual fussiness, fevers, difficulty sleeping, pulling on the ears, or fluid draining from the ear. In addition to these symptoms, parents of older children should be concerned about an ear infection if their child reports ear pain, diminished hearing, headaches, or ringing of the ears.

3) Your healthcare provider can actually see the infection

Parents often ask us, "How can you tell if my child has an ear infection or not?" It’s simple, really. In addition to measuring their temperature and listening to the symptoms your child has been experiencing at home, a medical provider uses a tool called an otoscope – a magnifying glass with a light source – to look into the ear. If a child does have a middle ear infection, the eardrum appears red and swollen. The provider can also see if the infection has caused a perforation (or hole) in the eardrum due to excess pressure from the infection.

4) Not every ear infection requires antibiotics

Yes, you read that correctly! Researchers have done extensive studies about pediatric ear infections and have learned that many ear infections resolve on their own without antibiotic treatment. The current guidelines recommend that oral antibiotics only be prescribed for children less than 6 months old, children with a compromised immune system, children who have experienced severe symptoms (including a fever of 102 or higher), or children of any age whose symptoms haven’t improved within 48 hours.

Regardless of whether they require an antibiotic, children often benefit from over-the-counter pain medicines or prescription anesthetic ear drops to relieve their pain.

5) Children with frequent ear infections need to see an ENT specialist

It’s important that children with frequent ear infections have a consultation with a pediatric ENT (Ear, Nose & Throat) specialist to see if they would benefit from having tubes placed in their ears. Tubes can lower the risk of recurrent infections, as well as limit eardrum scarring and permanent hearing loss that can result from frequent infections.

It’s recommended that children have an ENT consult if they have more than three ear infections in six months, have persistent hearing loss, have a hole in their eardrum that doesn’t heal on its own within a few weeks, or have a collapsed ear drum.

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