Ear infections are a very common occurrence for most babies and toddlers. Are you wondering how you can tell if your baby or toddler has an ear infection? And what can be done to treat an ear infection and prevent it from reoccurring? Read on to find out more about the signs and symptoms of this common, treatable early childhood illness and what can be done about it.
How Common Are Ear Infections in Babies and Toddlers?
Most children get an ear infection in their first few years of life, most frequently between 6 months and 3 years of age. Moreover, 66 percent of children have had an ear infection by the time they turn 2 years old.
Ear infections in young children are also more common during the cold and flu season of winter and early spring.
Luckily, recurrent ear infections tend to drop off for most children between the ages of 4 and 6 years old. However, that doesn’t mean they won’t crop up again since anyone, including adults, can get an ear infection.
Signs and Symptoms of an Ear Infection in Your Baby or Toddler
So, how do you know if your baby or toddler has an ear infection? It’s not easy to figure this out with babies (toddlers will often tell you that their ears hurt), but there are some signs you can look for. Here’s how to tell if your baby or toddler has an ear infection:
You may see your baby or younger child pulling at their ear. An older child may tell you their ear hurts
Crying, especially for babies during a feeding, because the sucking and swallowing may cause a change in pressure in the middle ear
Fever, typically between 100.4 to 104 degrees Fahrenheit
Your toddler may appear to be off-balance when walking since an ear infection affects balance due to fluid in the middle ear(Video) What causes ear infections in children?
Drainage from the ear that's either pus or a blood-tinged yellow fluid. This may indicate your child’s eardrum has developed a small hole due to the infection; this eventually heals by itself
Not hearing well due to the fluids behind the eardrum, making the transmission of sound difficult. You may notice this if your child is not responsive to softer sounds, or if a child-care provider tells you that your child seems to be inattentive in day care or school. If your child still has hearing issues after the ear infection has been treated or passed, consult their healthcare provider, who may recommend seeing an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT).
What Causes Ear Infections in Babies and Toddlers?
You may be asking yourself, “How do babies and toddlers get ear infections?” There are quite a few situations that can lead to your child developing an ear infection, including the following:
Your child previously had a cold. Statistically, 70 percent of ear infections occur after a child’s immune system has been weakened by a cold.
Underdeveloped Eustachian tubes. Since children are still growing and developing, their Eustachian tubes (connecting the middle ear to the throat) are small and short, making them more susceptible to infections.
Your child attends child care. Children under 1 year old who attend child care tend to get more ear infections than those who are cared for at home, since they’re exposed to more viruses in the presence of other children.
Feeding your baby in a lying position. Feeding your infant in a lying position or having your infant self-feed from a bottle in a lying position can increase the chances of an ear infection, since the breast milk or formula can flow into the inner ear.
Your child’s gender. Boys get more middle ear infections than girls; medical experts aren't sure why this is.
It’s hereditary. Surprisingly, ear infections can run in the family. If you had many ear infections while growing up, or if another of your children was prone to have many ear infections in early childhood, your baby or toddler may be more likely to get ear infections.
Secondhand smoke. If your child breathes in tobacco smoke, it can increase their risk of getting an ear infection, as well as other illnesses like bronchitis, pneumonia, and asthma.
How to Prevent Ear Infections in Babies and Toddlers
There are a few ways you can get ahead of your child’s chance of getting ear infections:
Breastfeeding your baby. Since breast milk contains antibodies, it’s been known to promote a lower rate of ear infections in breastfed babies compared to formula-fed babies
Always bottle-feeding your baby in an upright position. Feed your baby so their head is above the level of the stomach to prevent the Eustachian tubes from getting blocked by the fluid
Not smoking around your child
Ensuring your child has received their latest vaccinations
Practicing good hygiene, like frequent handwashing
Providing your child nutritious meals.
Other Preventive Measures
In some older children, ear infections might happen due to seasonal allergies. If you think there’s a connection between your child’s ear infections and seasonal allergies, consult their healthcare provider, who may suggest testing for allergies and/or a prescription for antihistamines.
If your child continues to have frequent ear infections, the healthcare provider may recommend they be seen by an ENT, who can recommend preventive measures.
In certain cases of recurrent ear infections that cause hearing loss, the ENT may recommend that tiny tubes be inserted into your child’s eardrums. During this medical procedure, your child would be placed under sedation and would not feel anything. The tubes help prevent fluid and infection-causing bacteria from entering the middle ear as well as restore proper hearing.
If you’re concerned about your child’s frequent ear infections, consult their healthcare provider or an ENT for more information on preventive measures as well as the possibility of the aforementioned medical treatment including its advantages and disadvantages.
Treatment for a Baby or Toddler’s Ear Infection
If you suspect your baby or toddler has an ear infection, you’ll want to contact their healthcare provider. Before or after the appointment, you may try the following home treatment strategies:
If they have a high fever, help keep them comfortable by
dressing them in light clothing
keeping the home’s temperature cool
giving them more fluids (exclusively breast milk or formula before 6 months of age, with water only recommended after 6 months old).
For fever and pain, after checking with the provider, you may give your child an age-appropriate dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen (but not aspirin, which isn't safe for children)
For an older child, with the provider's approval, place a warm compress or heating pad over your child’s ear to help manage the pain
Use pain-relieving eardrops to help ease your child’s pain, but check with the healthcare provider first.
At the appointment, the healthcare provider will check your child's ears for fluid in the middle ear space behind the eardrum. The provider may use various instruments to check for their sensitivity level and to see how the eardrum moves.
In some cases what you may have thought was an ear infection could simply be earache caused by your baby’s teething, a foreign object lodged in your toddler’s ear canal, or a buildup of earwax. The provider will rule these out during the examination.
Most ear infections don’t require antibiotics as they can resolve on their own. But in some cases, the provider may decide to prescribe an antibiotic and/or eardrops. Follow the dosage schedule closely and make sure to finish using all the medicine. Stopping the medicine before your child is fully recovered can encourage the ear infection to come back with vengeance.
Recovering From an Ear Infection
If the healthcare provider prescribes an antibiotic for your child, be sure to follow the dosage instructions carefully.
If you’re following the provider’s guidelines regarding the antibiotic dosage, your child may start feeling better in one to two days, with the fever and ear pain disappearing. During this time your child may also feel fullness or popping in the ear, which is a good sign that the recovery is under way.
The provider may very likely ask to see your child again to monitor the recovery. The provider will once again check to see if there’s fluid in the middle ear. Fifty percent of children may still have fluid in the ear three weeks after treatment with medicine. But in 90 percent of those children, the fluid in the middle ear disappears within 3 months. If the fluid doesn’t go away, the provider may refer your child to an ENT.
Oftentimes, in these instances, the ear infection may not be responding to the specific type of antibiotic that was first prescribed. The ENT may decide to have your child do another round of antibiotics, but this time prescribing a stronger one.
Should You Limit Your Child’s Activities During an Ear Infection?
There’s no reed to limit your child’s activities during an ear infection unless they have a fever. In that case, it’s best to keep them home from day care or school. Otherwise, they can attend while recovering from the ear infection. Just be sure to let the child care director or school nurse know of your child’s ear infection and how the prescription medicine should be administered.
Some antibiotics may need to be refrigerated, so it’s a good idea to check that the child care center or school has a refrigerator where it can be safely stored. Make sure the medicine is labeled with your child’s name and dosage instructions.
If your baby or toddler participates in swimming, it may be OK for them to swim while recovering from an ear infection as long as they don’t have drainage from the ear or a perforation in the eardrum. You may want to clear this with the healthcare provider first.
If you need to travel by airplane with your baby or toddler, know that’s it’s OK for your baby to travel while recovering from an ear infection. However, they may experience pain from the pressure. This can be remedied by nursing your baby or offering them a pacifier, as the sucking and swallowing can ease any discomfort.
The Bottom Line
Ear infections are very common in babies and toddlers. Being exposed to colds and other childhood illnesses in a child-care setting can increase the chance of your child also getting an ear infection. Smoking around your baby or bottle-feeding them in a lying position can also increase the chance of them getting an ear infection.
Ear infections may often include fever and earaches. Until you’re able to have your child seen by their healthcare provider, you can keep your little one comfortable by using a pain relieving medication or eardrops with permission from the provider.
Your child may need antibiotics to completely recover from the ear infection. The provider may ask to see your child again after the full course of antibiotics have been taken to double-check on your child’s recovery. During this time, your child can go about their days as normal—there’s no reason to keep them home from day care or school.
Most ear infections tend to be minor and clear up on their own without causing your child problems, so take heart that your child will soon recover from their ear infection and be back to their usual self.
They are usually not serious. Although not contagious, the viral illness that caused the infection can be. Most ear infections happen when a child has already had a cold for a few days.What causes ear infections in babies and toddlers? ›
What causes an ear infection? An ear infection usually is caused by bacteria and often begins after a child has a sore throat, cold, or other upper respiratory infection.How do you treat an ear infection in a toddler? ›
- Fever and pain medicine: based it on age, consult with doctor. Over-the-counter medications can help reduce pain and fever in your child. ...
- Place a cold pack or warm compress over your child's ear. ...
- Keep child hydrated. ...
- Elevate your child's head. ...
- Watch for ear discharge.
Ear infections are very common in young children. Most ear infections are not cured after the first dose of antibiotic. Often, children don't get better the first day. Most children get better slowly over 2 to 3 days.Should toddler stay home with ear infection? ›
Ear infections are not contagious. Your child can safely return to child care or school after the pain and fever subside. However, he should continue taking the antibiotics as prescribed until the pills or liquid are used up.Is an ear infection an emergency toddler? ›
Ear infections don't require an immediate visit to your local care center. They usually go away fairly quickly and can be relieved with over-the-counter medication or at-home remedies. However, a visit to the emergency care is advised in the following circumstances: High fever.What helps kids with ear infections sleep? ›
What to Do At Home. Lying down can increase the sensation of pressure and discomfort in your child's ears. Children over the age of two can be encouraged to sleep propped up with pillows. With younger infants, you can give their crib mattress a slight incline by placing a thin pillow or two beneath the mattress itself.What do babies do when they have an ear infection? ›
Children with ear infections often fuss and cry, pull at their ears, and sleep poorly. Ear infections are common in babies and young children. Your doctor may prescribe antibiotics to treat the ear infection. Children under 6 months are usually given an antibiotic.How do you know if an ear infection is viral or bacterial? ›
If the ear infection goes away on its own within a week or so, you can assume it was caused by a virus. If it isn't improving after a week, it might be a bacterial infection and you should definitely seek medical treatment.When should I worry about my child's ear infection? ›
Very rarely, ear infections that don't go away or severe repeated middle ear infections can lead to complications. So kids with an earache or a sense of fullness in the ear, especially when combined with fever, should be seen by their doctors if they aren't getting better after a couple of days.
Signs of Infection
A red, bulging eardrum. Clear, yellow, or greenish fluid behind the eardrum. There may also be some blood. Earwax buildup.
Ear infections are not contagious or spread from one person to another, but the colds that result in ear infections are. Colds are spread when germs are released from the nose or mouth during coughing or sneezing. Anything that can reduce the spread of germs will help reduce ear infections.Do kids sleep more when they have an ear infection? ›
Jacobson says to look out for fever, especially if preceded by a cold, as well as crying, clinginess, loss of appetite and irritability. Children with an ear infection often won't sleep well, either, as pressure in the middle ear on the eustachian tubes increases when they're lying down.Can I take my child out with an ear infection? ›
Most ear infections clear up within 3 days, although sometimes symptoms can last up to a week. If you, or your child, have a high temperature or you do not feel well enough to do your normal activities, try to stay at home and avoid contact with other people until you feel better.What happens if toddler ear infection goes untreated? ›
If there is some permanent damage to the eardrum or other middle ear structures, permanent hearing loss may occur. Speech or developmental delays. If hearing is temporarily or permanently impaired in infants and toddlers, they may experience delays in speech, social and developmental skills. Spread of infection.Can Covid lead to ear infection in kids? ›
In general, COVID-19 has not been associated with ear infections, and generally these types of infections do not share a great deal of common symptoms.When an ear infection is serious? ›
Seek emergency care if you have any of the following symptoms: Pain in an ear with or without fever. Itching of the ear or ear canal. Loss of hearing or difficulty hearing in one or both ears.How can I comfort my baby with an ear infection? ›
- Warm compress. Try placing a warm, moist compress over your child's ear for about 10 to 15 minutes. ...
- Acetaminophen. If your baby is older than 6 months, acetaminophen (Tylenol) may help relieve pain and fever. ...
- Warm oil. ...
- Stay hydrated. ...
- Elevate your baby's head. ...
- Homeopathic eardrops.
In the meantime, you can do things like give pain medication (acetaminophen or ibuprofen) if appropriate for your little one's age, raise up the head of her crib so there is less pressure for her ears, or run a humidifier in the room to help moisten the air.What causes babies to get ear infections? ›
Ear infections are caused by a bacteria or virus and lead to fluid buildup in the eustachian tubes, which prevents them from draining normally from the middle ear. Ear infections often occur when a child has a cold, sinus infection or allergies.
Should you get them evaluated? If your child is more than 6 months old and symptoms are very mild, you can probably try home treatments first. If symptoms don't improve quickly, have your child checked out. Your pediatrician will ask questions about description and duration of symptoms.How do doctors tell if a baby has an ear infection? ›
Commonly called an earache because of the pain, your baby may also have a fever. Otitis media with effusion (OME). OME is where after an ear infection has run its course, fluid gets trapped behind the eardrum. Your baby may not be exhibiting any symptoms, but a doctor will be able to see the fluid with an otoscope.What are the 3 types of ear infection? ›
Types of ear infection include: otitis externa. otitis media – acute or chronic. serous otitis media.What does a major ear infection look like? ›
The otoscope will allow the provider to look at the surface of the eardrum. A healthy eardrum looks pinkish-gray. An infection of the middle ear, or an ear with otitis media, looks red, bulging, and there may be clear, yellow, or even greenish hued drainage.How do you confirm an ear infection? ›
An instrument called a pneumatic otoscope is often the only specialized tool a doctor needs to diagnose an ear infection. This instrument enables the doctor to look in the ear and judge whether there is fluid behind the eardrum. With the pneumatic otoscope, the doctor gently puffs air against the eardrum.What ages are ear infections most common? ›
Ear infection is the most commonly diagnosed bacterial infection in children younger than age 7. Almost all children will have at least one ear infection by the time they are 7 years old. Most ear infections occur in babies between the ages of 6 months to 3 years.What happens to untreated ear infection in toddler? ›
Ear infections need to be treated. If left untreated, they can lead to unnecessary pain and permanent hearing loss for your child. Ear infections usually go away in a few days.When does an ear infection become serious? ›
Seek emergency care if you have any of the following symptoms: Pain in an ear with or without fever. Itching of the ear or ear canal. Loss of hearing or difficulty hearing in one or both ears.When should you worry about an ear infection? ›
You should contact your doctor immediately if: The symptoms do not improve within 3 days. Body temperature rises above 100.4 degrees as an accompanying fever could indicate a more serious infection. Ear infections are being experienced regularly, as they can eventually lead to hearing loss.Can an ear infection turn into meningitis? ›
A very rare and serious complication of a middle ear infection is meningitis. This can occur if the infection spreads to the protective outer layer of the brain and spinal cord (the meninges). Symptoms of meningitis can include: severe headache.
A healthy eardrum looks pinkish-gray. An infection of the middle ear, or an ear with otitis media, looks red, bulging, and there may be clear, yellow, or even greenish hued drainage.What are the symptoms of a severe ear infection? ›
Common symptoms of a middle-ear infection in adults are: Pain in 1 or both ears. Drainage from the ear. Muffled hearing.Can ear infection spread to brain? ›
Rarely, serious middle ear infections spread to other tissues in the skull, including the brain or the membranes surrounding the brain (meningitis).Are ear infections linked to Covid? ›
It is possible, but unlikely, to develop an ear infection after coronavirus, as ear infections are not a common symptom related to COVID-19.