Ear infections are the one reason why young children visit healthcare providers. Though common, they should be treated. Chronic ear infections can muffle hearing, which children need to learn language. In severe cases, repeated ear infections can delay speech development and lead to hearing loss.

If you suspect that your child has chronic ear infections, have him or her checked by your healthcare provider. Given time and proper care, chronic ear infections can be cured.

What are the symptoms of an ear infection?

  • Pain in one ear
  • Sense of fullness in one ear
  • Muffled hearing
  • Fever

Young children may also have:

  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea

Babies too young to say where it hurts may rub or tug their ears, cry, and be irritable or unable to sleep.

What causes an ear infection?

Ear infections are caused by bacteria and viruses (bacteria and viruses are types of germs). Many times, an ear infection begins after a child gets a cold or cough from one of these germs. The germ travels into the middle ear through the Eustachian tube, the channel that connects the middle ear to the top of the throat.

Middle ear infections cause the tissue to become inflamed. The eardrum may bulge, swell and turn red, leading to pain and hearing problems. Fluid can build up behind the eardrum.

How is an ear infection treated?

If the ear infection is mild, your healthcare provider may wait to see if it goes away on its own. When treatment is needed, antibiotics, a type of medicine, may be ordered. Antibiotics kill the bacteria causing the infection and are taken by the mouth as pills or liquids. Most treatments require the child to take the antibiotic each day for seven to 10 days, depending on the medicine ordered. Keep giving your child the medicine, even if the pain goes away. The infection can come back if medication is stopped.

You may be asked to bring your child back for another checkup. This follow-up visit is to make sure that the infection is clear, even if symptoms have gone away.

How soon will my child feel better?

Your child should start feeling better a few days after treatment has begun. Carefully follow your healthcare provider’s instructions for giving your child the medicine.

What is middle ear fluid?

Middle ear fluid is the build up of fluid behind the eardrum. It can result from an ear infection or on its own.

Middle ear fluid may not cause pain and can reduce or distort hearing in both ears at the same time. Treatment is important because if prolonged, middle ear fluid can cause a delay in speech development.

If middle ear fluid does not go away on its own within three months, a course of antibiotics may be given.

Why do some children need tubes put into their ears?

Usually, chronic ear infections and middle ear fluid clear up with antibiotics or on its own. Sometimes, however, the ear doesn’t drain properly and fluid builds up behind the eardrum, even after infection has gone. Healthcare providers place small tubes into the eardrums to allow fluid to drain and to let air into the middle ear.

Before inserting tubes, your healthcare provider should wait several months to see if the fluid drains on its own. Another round of antibiotics and a hearing test may be ordered. Tubes are recommended only if the condition lasts for more than four to six months and your child is having hearing problems.

Will my child always get ear infections?

Most children stop getting ear infections by age six. Chronic ear infections are more common in young children because their Eustachian tubes are shorter and more horizontal. This shape encourages fluid to gather behind the eardrum.

How can I protect my child from getting ear infections?

Here are some ways you can reduce your child’s risk of ear infections:

  • Don’t smoke around your children. Studies show that second-hand smoke can make a child two to three times more likely to develop ear infections.
  • Breast feed your baby. Babies who are breast fed rather than bottle fed are less likely to get ear infections.
  • If you bottle feed, keep your baby in a sitting position. When a child sucks a bottle lying down, milk is more likely to flow into the middle ear.
  • Keep a watch on allergies. Mucus from allergic reactions can block the Eustachian tube and make ear infections more likely.
  • Prevent colds. Preventing colds can reduce the number of ear problems.

Reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional.

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