An ear infection (otitis media) affects your child's middle ear (behind the eardrum). It can be caused by a bacteria or virus and often follows an upper respiratory infection (such as a cold).
Perhaps half of all ear infections will clear up without antibiotics, since they are caused by viruses.
If your child has an ear infection, your health care provider may recommend watchful waiting to see if the infection goes away by itself. This will help in reducing the use of antibiotics and the growth of bacteria that are resistant to commonly used antibiotics.
Ear infections cannot be spread, but the upper respiratory infection that can lead to an ear infection can be.
Ear infections are common in young children and usually affect children younger than 3 years old. By the time your child is 6 years old, he will likely have had at least one ear infection.
Your child can get ear infections more than once. If the infection is caused by a bacteria, antibiotics may help.
It is important to see your health care provider for a follow-up visit. If your child has a severe infection, or many infections, he is at risk for hearing loss.
Signs of an ear infection
If your child has an ear infection, he may:
- have inflammation of the middle ear, often with fluid building up behind the eardrum
- have a fever
- cry persistently
- tug at the ear
- be irritable
- be unable to hear well
- have diarrhea, nausea or vomiting.
How to prevent an ear infection
- Teach your child to cover his mouth with a tissue when he coughs and sneezes.
- Teach your child to only use a tissue once and then throw it away.
- Do not allow your child to share toys that have been put in another child's mouth.
- Clean any toy that has been put in a child's mouth.
- Teach your child how to wash his hands well.
- Do not prop an infant or child up with a bottle of milk or juice. Also, do not let a child fall asleep with a bottle. This can cause fluid to build-up in the eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the nose. Bacteria can grow in the pooled fluid in your child's middle ear.
- Keep your child away from secondhand smoke. This can increase the number of ear infections he could get.
How to treat an ear infection
- Use any prescribed antibiotics or eardrops as directed by your health care provider or pharmacist. Be sure to use all of the prescription, even if your child feels better after a few doses.
- Use acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or ibuprofen (Advil®) for fever or mild discomfort. Follow your health care provider's or the package directions. Do not give ibuprofen to a child younger than 6 months old.
- Do not give your child aspirin or medicines that contain salicylate to treat a viral illness, unless your health care provider gives you directions. These medicines put your child at risk of developing Reye's syndrome, a life-threatening brain and liver disorder.
- Talk with your health care provider or pharmacist about over-the-counter medicines that may help relieve other symptoms.
When your health care provider may advise tubes
For ear infections that won't go away, your health care provider may want to put plastic tubes in your child's eardrums. These tubes let the fluid drain from the ears.
During the surgery, your child will be given a medicine to put her to sleep. The doctor will make a small incision in the eardrum. He or she will insert the small plastic tube. You will be able to take your child home after surgery.
Talk with your health care provider for specific information about inserting ear tubes.
When to call your health care provider
Call your health care provider for an appointment if your child:
- has a fever not relieved by medicine
- still tugs at the affected ear(s) 48 hours after taking medicine
- has problems eating or sleeping.