Identifying and Treating Ear Infections in Children
Your child has a bothersome cold for a week. Their nasal discharge turns a little green and their cough starts to keep you all up at night. Then one night they are up every hour extremely fussy with a fever. You take them to the doctor the next morning, almost certain they have another ear infection.
Ear infections in children are one of the most worrisome illnesses for both parents and children to go through, especially if they are frequent. They also are the most common reason for antibiotic prescriptions. Here’s a guide to help you understand why ear infections occur, how to best treat them, and most importantly, how you can prevent them from happening too often.
8 main symptoms of ear infections in children
Your child may have 2 or more of these symptoms:
- Cold symptoms – keep in mind that ear infections are almost always preceded by a cold. Often a clear runny nose will turn yellow or green before an ear infection sets in.
- Fussiness during the day or night
- Complaining of ear pain or hearing loss
- Night-waking more frequently
- Unwillingness to lie flat
- Fever – usually low grade (101º – 102º); may not have a fever
- Sudden increase in fussiness during a cold
- Ear drainage – if you see blood or pus draining out of the ear, then it is probably an infection with a ruptured eardrum. DON’T WORRY! These almost always heal just fine, and once the eardrum ruptures the pain subsides.
Your child is unlikely to have an ear infection if:
1. There are no cold symptoms
If your child has some of the above symptoms but does not have a cold, an ear infection is less likely, unless your child has had an ear infection in the past without a cold.
2. They are pulling at the ears
Or batting the ears in infants less than 1 year of age. Infants less than 1 year old are unable to precisely localize their ear pain. This means that they cannot tell if the pain is coming from the ear or from structures near the ear. Infants can pull on or bat at their ears for two other common reasons:
- Teething – A baby thinks the pain from sore gums is coming from the ears
- Because they like playing with their ears – Infants are fascinated with these strange appendages that are sticking out of the side of their head. They love to explore them, play with them, and especially stick their fingers into that strange hole in the middle.
3. No complaints of ear pain
No complaints from a child who is old enough to tell you, usually by age 2 or 3.
Dr. Sears’ Advice
Infants often pull on their ears simply to play with them. Ear pulling in the absence of the above signs is unlikely to signal an ear infection.
How can I tell if it’s an ear infection or just teething?
Are you tired of taking your fussy baby into the doctor to check her ears, only to be told its probably just teething? To help you decide, with teething:
- Pain usually starts at 4 months old and will come and go until the 2-year molars are in
- Tugging or digging at the ears with no cold symptoms or fever
- Fussiness or night waking with no cold symptoms or fever
- May have low fever less than 101º
- Teething does not cause a runny nose, only drool
How do ear infections in children occur?
Here’s an anatomy lesson
The ear is divided into three parts: the outer ear canal, the middle ear space where infections occur, and the inner ear where the nerves and balance center are. A thin, membranous eardrum divides the outer and middle ear. The middle ear space contains the small bones that conduct the vibrations of the ear drum to the brain and is also connected to the back of the nose via the Eustachian tube.
Immature Eustachian tube
In infants and young children, this tube is much shorter and is angled. It is therefore much easier for bacteria to migrate from the nose and throat up into the middle ear space. As the child grows, this tube becomes more vertical, so germs have to travel upward to reach the middle ear. This is one-reason children outgrow ear infections.
When your child has a cold, the nasal passages get swollen and mucus collects in the back of the nose. This environment is a breeding ground for the bacteria that normally live in the nose and throat to begin to overgrow. Mucus is also secreted within the middle ear space just as it is in the sinuses.
Germs migrate up through the Eustachian tube and into the middle ear space where they multiply within the mucus that is stuck there. Pus begins to form and soon the middle ear space is filled with bacteria, pus and thick mucus.
This pus causes the eardrum to bulge, causing pain. It is this red, bulging pus-colored eardrum that the doctor can see by looking into the ear canal.
The discharge that collects in the middle ear presses on the eardrum preventing it from vibrating normally and dampens the conduction of those vibrations in the small bones. This is what the doctor means by “fluid in the middle ear.” Also the fluid plugs the Eustachian tube and dampens the sound like the sensation in your ears during air travel.
Are ear infections in children contagious?
No, the bacteria inside the ear causing the infection is not contagious. However, the cold virus that can lead to an ear infection is contagious. Oftentimes, if the ear infection occurs a week after the cold begins, the child is no longer contagious.
How are ear infections treated?
Here are some antidotes to help you get through the night:
- Acetaminophen or ibuprofen are effective pain relievers for ear pain. You can safely use both medications together if one alone is not enough. Click on each medication for the dosage.
- Warm compression – apply a warm washcloth to the ear.
- Warm olive oil, vegetable oil, or garlic oil – put several drops of one of these into the ear. MAKE SURE THE OIL ISN’T TOO HOT.
- Anesthetic ear drops – if the above remedies aren’t enough, these are available by prescription and can numb the eardrum to minimize the pain for an hour or two.
- WARNING – if you see any liquid or pus draining out of the ear, DO NOT PUT ANY OF THE ABOVE DROPS INTO THE EAR. See below under ear drainage.
Xylitol and ear infections
Xylitol helps fight the bacteria causing the infections, much of which is in the nose.
- Chewing gum sweetened with xylitol has been shown to reduce some chronic ear infections (and it helps prevent tooth decay as well).
- Xlear® is a nasal spray containing xylitol that was originally developed to prevent ear infections. Using it will help keep your child’s nose clean and wash out many of the bacteria that cause these infections.
A seven-day course is the current recommendation, unless your doctor feels a longer course is indicated. The whole issue of antibiotics can be confusing to parents, so here are some general guidelines to help you:
- Amoxicillin – “the pink stuff” – this is the standard first-line treatment used by most doctors, and rightly so. It works well most of the time, is inexpensive, tastes pretty good, and is easy on the stomach and intestines.
- Azithromycin, Augmentin (amoxicillin/clavulinate mix), double dose amoxicillin, cefuroxime – these are all common second and third line choices.
- A new combination of Augmentin plus extra amoxicillin called Augmentin ES has been shown to be very effective in treating resistant ear infections. Your doctor may prescribe both.
- Finish the prescribed course – even if you child is feeling better after two or three days, it is best to complete at least seven days of treatment to help ensure the infection doesn’t come back.
Avoid antibiotic resistance
“But doctor, amoxicillin doesn’t work for my child, and it’s so hard to give it to them three times a day! Can I please have the once a day for only five days stuff?” – Be careful about doing this. Always taking a stronger, more convenient antibiotic can make the bacteria that dwells in your child more resistant to the stronger antibiotics, and can make future infections more difficult to treat. Even if amoxicillin hasn’t worked once or twice in the past, chances are that this new infection is a different bacteria that is sensitive to amoxicillin, especially if more than two months have passed since the last antibiotic. The good news is amoxicillin now comes in a twice-a-day form, and treatment is usually only seven days instead of ten.
When to use a stronger antibiotic
It is usually best to start out with the simple amoxicillin. Here are some reasons to go with something stronger:
- If the fever and fussiness are not improving after 48 – 72 hours of an antibiotic, your child may need a stronger one
- If amoxicillin has not worked two or three times in the past, then it’s OK to start with a stronger antibiotic for future infections
- If your child has taken amoxicillin in the past six weeks, and then develops another ear infection, chances are that this infection is resistant and needs a stronger antibiotic
- If your child is allergic to amoxicillin
- If the infection is still present after one course of amoxicillin
- IMPORTANT NOTE: the antibiotics only take care of the bacteria causing the ear infection. They don’t treat the virus that is causing the underlying cold symptoms. So don’t expect the runny nose and cough to improve for 3 to 14 days
If this occurs, your doctor will probably also prescribe an ear drop that is a mix of antibiotic and hydrocortisone. This helps the ear canal heal.
Healing Tip: Encourage your child to sleep with the sore ear up to allow gravity to help the fluid drain away from the eardrum.
Are antibiotics absolutely necessary to treat ear infections?
No, they are not absolutely necessary, but they are helpful for several reasons:
- Antibiotics will help your child feel better faster by eliminating the bacteria, which in turn reduces the fever and ear pain more quickly. Children generally feel better after one or two days of antibiotics.
- Allowing an ear infection to heal on its own usually subjects a child to four to seven days of fever and ear pain.
- Antibiotics help prevent the very rare, but possible, complications of an ear infection spreading into the brain or bone surrounding the ear.
- New research is suggesting that 80 percent of uncomplicated ear infections will resolve within 4 to 7 days without antibiotics. Parents who choose not to use antibiotics can treat the pain and fever with Auralgan anesthetic ear drops and ibuprofen or acetominophen, or can try using Xlear® nasal spray as mentioned above.
Minimizing side effects of antibiotics
Side effects can include:
- Fungal diaper rash
- Oral thrush
Read more about the side effects of antibiotics for an important discussion on how to minimize those side effects.
How ear infections resolve
There are two components of ear infections that need to resolve:
- Infection – the antibiotics usually take care of the bacteria, which in turn resolves the fever and pain within a few days.
- Middle ear fluid – it takes much longer for this to resolve, anywhere from a few days up to 3 months! The fluid slowly drains out through the Eustachian tube down into the nose. Taking repeated courses of antibiotics does not speed up this process, since the fluid is usually no longer infected with bacteria. Chronic nasal congestion or allergies can block the Eustachian tube and therefore prevent the ears from draining. Your child’s hearing may be muffled until the fluid drains out. This is not permanent. See below how to prevent ear infections with tips on how to improve ear drainage.
Remember, since the runny nose and cough are usually caused by a cold virus and not bacteria, it may be 3 – 14 days before these symptoms resolve.
Follow up with the doctor
Most doctors will have you follow up anywhere from one to four weeks after an ear infection. There are several reasons for this:
- To make sure the infection is clearing up
- To make sure the middle ear fluid is draining out. If the fluid stays around continuously for more than three months, your doctor needs to know
- To help determine if the next ear infection is a new one or a continuation of an old infection. This helps determine which antibiotic to use.Your doctor may perform a tympanogram – a rubber probe that painlessly fits into your baby’s ear canal and measures how the eardrum vibrates. This helps determine if there is any fluid left
IMPORTANT NOTE: Try to avoid over-treating with unnecessary repeated courses of antibiotics. At your follow-up visit with your doctor, there may still be fluid in the middle ear. If the ear is not red or bulging and your child is acting fine, you may not need another course of antibiotics. Doctors will vary in how aggressive they like to treat ear fluid. You may be able to spare your child from an unnecessary course of antibiotics.
Chronic ear fluid
As stated above, sometimes it can take several months for the fluid to drain out of the middle ear space. During this period the hearing can be muffled, however, this isn’t dangerous and does not cause permanent hearing loss. Thankfully, the fluid often drains out within two or three weeks. There are several situations, however, when you do need to worry about this fluid in the ear:
- Eustachian tube dysfunction – this is a condition where the Eustachian tube can’t do its job correctly and the middle ear doesn’t drain. Causes include chronic sinus infections, nasal allergies and frequent colds
- Fluid that stays in the ear for more than three to four months can become thick and gooey, a term called “glue ear.” This type of fluid often needs to be drained surgically by an ear specialist
- If this long period of muffled hearing occurs during the first two years of life when language development is crucial, it can cause speech delay. This is usually only temporary, however, but the longer it goes on, the longer the speech and hearing can be delayed
- If your child has several ear infections over a three to four month period, and the fluid never really has time to drain in between infections, this can cause a prolonged period of muffled hearing. Again, don’t worry if it takes one or two months for the fluid to drain out of your child’s ear. This is common, but we would like to stress the importance of proper follow-ups with your doctor to make sure it eventually does resolve
9 steps to prevent ear infections
If your child has had several ear infections already, or you simple wish to lower their risk of getting ear infections in the first place, here are some ways to prevent or at least lessen the frequency and severity of ear infections:
There is no doubt whatsoever in the medical literature that prolonged breastfeeding lowers your child’s chances of getting ear infections.
2. Daycare setting
Continuous exposure to other children increases the risk that your child will catch more colds, and consequently more ear infections. Crowded daycare settings are a set up for germ sharing. If possible, switch your child to a small, home daycare setting. This will lower the risk.
3. Control allergies
If you think allergies are contributing to your child’s runny nose and, consequently, ear infections, click on allergies to find out more about how to minimize your child’s allergies.
4. Feed your baby upright
Lying down while bottle-feeding can cause the milk to irritate the Eustachian tube which can contribute to ear infections.
5. Keep the nose clear
When a runny nose and cold start, do your best to keep the nose clear by using steam, saline nose drops, and suctioning. Also try Xlear® nasal spray which contains xylitol that can help prevent viruses and bacteria from attaching in your child’s nose. See colds for more info on clearing the nose.
6. Cigarette smoke
There is strong evidence that smoking irritates the baby’s nasal passage, which leads to Eustachian tube dysfunction.
This is an herb which can safely and effectively boost the immune system. Read our article on echinacea for more information.
8. Chiropractic care
I firmly believe that chiropractic adjustments to the skull and neck can improve middle ear drainage and decrease ear infections.
9. Eat more raw fruits and vegetables
These can greatly boost your child’s immune system and help fight off infections.
Medical prevention for chronic or frequent ear infections
If your child is having frequent ear infections, more aggressive prevention may be indicated. There are different opinions as to the definition of chronic ear infections. How many is too many?
- More aggressive doctors may choose to begin medical prevention if you child has more than three ear infections in six months, or more than four in one year.
- Less aggressive doctors may allow your child to have more infections before recommending medical prevention; We lean more in this direction.
- Other factors such as hearing loss and speech delay may warrant more aggressive treatment.
There are three forms of medical prevention:
- Prophylactic antibiotics. This consists of a once-a-day dose of amoxicillin or similar antibiotic. There are several things to consider:
- Daily treatment for several months continuously, such as through the winter season
- Start the daily treatment at the first sign of any cold symptoms, and then continue the antibiotic for 7 – 10 days
- Advantage to taking prophylactic antibiotics is that you avoid full dose courses of possibly stronger antibiotics
- Disadvantage is that your child is taking the antibiotic more often and this could contribute to antibiotic resistance
- OUR PREFERENCE: Start the daily amoxicillin at the first sign of cold symptoms
- Immunization. There is a vaccine called Prevnar that came out in 2000. Four doses are given during the first two years of life. For children 15 months and older, one dose is enough. This vaccine helps prevent infections from a bacterium called pneumococcus. This bug causes pneumonia, blood infections, meningitis and ear infections. The main purpose of this vaccine is to prevent the more serious infections. It also can prevent ear infections in two ways:
- Decreased number of ear infections – this effect is minimal. Studies have shown that this shot only decreases ear infections by 10 – 20 percent
- Decreased ear infections from resistant pneumococcus – this is considered a much more valuable benefit from the shot. The vaccine has been shown to significantly decrease the number of ear infections caused by pneumococcus that are resistant to standard antibiotics
- Ear tubes. These are tiny tubes that an ENT specialist inserts into the eardrum under general anesthesia. They usually stay in place for 6 months to over a year. There are several purposes achieved by tubes:
- To drain chronic ear fluid that may turn into “glue ear.”
- To provide an outlet for middle ear fluid to drain out as it begins to collect during a cold. This may help prevent a full ear infection from occurring.
- To preserve hearing and timely speech development by avoiding long months of muffled hearing caused by middle ear fluid. Unfortunately, ear infections occur most commonly during the time when children are learning all the sounds that make up languages; if they cannot hear accurately they are at risk for developing learning problems.
- To help prevent the rare complication of chronic hearing loss caused by recurrent ear infections.
The ear tube controversy
While ear tubes do have their place in treating recurrent ear infections, there does exist some controversy over their use. The advantages are listed above, but some common concerns about tubes are:
- Some doctors may be too quick to recommend ear tubes before exhausting all other preventative measures or before allowing enough time to allow the ears to clear up without surgery.
- As with any surgery, there are risks (though minimal) to general anesthesia.
- The tubes often leave a little scar covering approximately one sixth of the eardrum. This scar is often permanent. There does not seem to be any long-term consequence of this scarring, but we’re not completely sure. Please note that recurrent ear infections with or without eardrum rupture can also lead to scarring.
- Please note that ear tubes don’t always prevent ear infections. Some children will still get as many infections even with the tubes in, but the fluid drains out right away.
- Many children benefit from ear tubes, parents declaring their child is a new person; The ear infections are gone, hearing has improved, no more sleepless nights with a crying child, no more endless courses of antibiotics.
- A general indication for tubes are chronic ear fluid for more than four to six months, more than three ear infections in six months or more than five in one year. You and your doctor should decide together when it is the right time for ear tubes for your child.
Dr. Sears, or Dr. Bill as his “little patients” call him, has been advising busy parents on how to raise healthier families for over 40 years. He received his medical training at Harvard Medical School’s Children’s Hospital in Boston and The Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the world’s largest children’s hospital, where he was associate ward chief of the newborn intensive care unit before serving as the chief of pediatrics at Toronto Western Hospital, a teaching hospital of the University of Toronto. He has served as a professor of pediatrics at the University of Toronto, University of South Carolina, University of Southern California School of Medicine, and University of California: Irvine. As a father of 8 children, he coached Little League sports for 20 years, and together with his wife Martha has written more than 40 best-selling books and countless articles on nutrition, parenting, and healthy aging. He serves as a health consultant for magazines, TV, radio and other media, and his AskDrSears.com website is one of the most popular health and parenting sites. Dr. Sears has appeared on over 100 television programs, including 20/20, Good Morning America, Oprah, Today, The View, and Dr. Phil, and was featured on the cover of TIME Magazine in May 2012. He is noted for his science-made-simple-and-fun approach to family health.