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The ABCs of ear infections: What parents need to know during earache season

Ouch! Most children will experience an ear infection – in fact, five out of six kids will get one or more ear infections by the time they turn three. That makes ear infections the top reason parents bring their child to a doctor.

This time of year, when respiratory illnesses are more common, ear infections are also more likely to occur. Both adults and children can get ear infections, but they’re more common in young children, especially under age two (infections are unlikely in children younger than four months old).

One type of ear infection is “swimmer’s ear,” which is an infection of the canal that leads to the eardrum. But when we talk about ear infections, we’re more often referring to “acute otitis media,” which occurs when the middle ear becomes inflamed due to fluid building up behind the eardrum.

We spoke to pediatrician Shanna Kautzmann, MD, of Beacon Medical Group Pediatrics Main Street to get the scoop on ear infections in kids and what to do about them.

Dr. Shanna Kautzmann is seeing patients at Beacon Medical Group Pediatrics Main Street.

Why are ear infections common in kids? 

Ear infections are more common in children due to their eustachian tubes being smaller and more horizontal. This makes it more difficult for fluid to drain out of the ear. Some children are more genetically prone to ear infections.

What causes ear infections? Are they associated with seasonal allergies?

Ear infections most often occur during or after an upper respiratory illness or cold. However, they may occur without a respiratory infection. Most children with seasonal allergies do not have ear infections associated with their allergy symptoms.

What symptoms might I see in my child?

Symptoms of an ear infection (otitis media) include fever and pulling the affected ear. In an infant or toddler, in addition to fever, they may have symptoms of fussiness, poor feeding, vomiting or poor sleep.

How are ear infections treated?

Treatment for ear infections is usually an antibiotic given by mouth. However, ear infections may resolve without an antibiotic, and it is reasonable to discuss with your healthcare provider the option of observation with close follow-up, especially if your child has a mild infection without severe pain or fever.

Pain is usually treated with acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Sometimes the eardrum may burst (perforate) due to the buildup of fluid; this hole will usually spontaneously resolve, but close follow-up by your child’s healthcare provider is recommended.

Are there any safe at-home remedies for a child’s earache?

A warm compress may help with discomfort. I recommend not to put any liquid or substances in your child’s ear (to treat an ear infection) without first discussing with your practitioner.

What if my child gets a second or third ear infection?

Recurrent otitis media is usually defined as three distinct ear infections within six months, or four ear infections within 12 months. If your child is having ear infections frequently, discuss this with your provider, as they may need evaluation by an ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialist. This would especially be important if any hearing loss or speech delay was occurring. In some cases, a child may be recommended to have “ear tubes” placed. The specialist would discuss the risks and benefits of the procedure with you.

It is possible to prevent ear infections?

Although it may be difficult to prevent ear infections, some recommendations include breastfeeding during infancy, avoiding secondhand smoke, putting your child in smaller daycare groups and vaccinating your child against pneumococcal disease (pneumonia) and influenza (flu).

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