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Ear Infections are Common in Kids

Listen Up: Ear Infections Are Common in Kids

July 16, 2022

By Aisha Khan, MD

Ear infections occur quite often among children, particularly under the age of four. The most common type of ear infection in kids is otitis media, or middle ear infection, which develops when there’s a buildup of mucus and bacteria in the ear cavity behind the eardrum.

Since the canals between the middle ear and throat, called eustachian tubes, are shorter and more horizontal in kids than in adults, bacteria and viruses don’t have as far to travel from the nose or throat to the middle ear. Also, the adenoids, or gland-like structures at the back of the throat, are larger in children and can block the opening of the eustachian tubes.

Most often, a middle ear infection develops after a cold or respiratory illness when nasal passages become swollen and mucus collects at the back of the nose and makes its way into the ear. As the mucus builds and becomes stuck, bacteria multiply, leading to infection.

Young girl holding her ear

Ear Infection Signs and Symptoms

  • Ear pain in one ear that may worsen when lying down
  • Hearing loss or feeling like the ear is “stuffed up”
  • A feeling of fullness in the infected ear
  • Drainage of fluid from the ear
  • A general feeling of illness

Infant ear exam

However, infants and younger children may not be able to communicate the presence of the above symptoms, so look for the following signs:

  • Tugging or holding one or both ears
  • Not responding to sounds
  • A fever of 100 degrees or above
  • Unusual irritability
  • Difficulty getting or staying asleep
  • Loss of balance
  • Not wanting to eat or drink due to chewing or sucking causing pain

Preventing Ear Infections

There’s no guarantee that middle ear infections can be prevented, but there are some factors that can help protect children from developing them.

Breastfeeding infants for at least their first six months can prevent ear infections early in life because antibodies in breast milk can help fend off infections in general. If your baby is bottle-fed, always avoid feeding them while they’re lying down so milk can’t pool in their throat and enter the eustachian tubes.

Weaning your child off pacifiers after they’re 6 months old can decrease the chances of them developing ear infections since excessive sucking may inhibit proper eustachian tube function.

There’s also evidence that vaccinated children have fewer types of certain ear infections, so keeping your child up to date on their immunizations will help with prevention.

Exposure to smoke has been linked to increased ear infections, possibly because it causes inflammation of the eustachian tubes, so not smoking or allowing others to smoke near your child can also aid in prevention.

Treating Ear Infections

Many times, ear infections resolve on their own within a few days, but if symptoms persist or if your child is under 6 months old, you should see your pediatrician. In the meantime, help your child cope with the pain and discomfort by giving them children’s ibuprofen or acetaminophen.

If the infection hasn’t resolved after a few days, your pediatrician will likely prescribe a course of antibiotics to rid the middle ear of bacteria and clear up the infection.

If the ear canal is severely swollen, your child’s doctor may place an ear wick (a small, compressed sponge) moistened with antibiotic drops into the entrance of the canal to reduce swelling.

Girl checking doctor's ear

If you suspect your child may have an ear infection, the Pediatrics specialists at Kelsey-Seybold can diagnose the problem and recommend a course of treatment to get your little one feeling better as soon as possible.

Portrait of Aisha Khan, MD, FAAP, Pediatrics specialist at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic.

About the Author

Dr. Khan is a board-certified pediatrician at Kelsey-Seybold and a Fellow of the American Academy of Pediatrics. A native Houstonian, Dr. Khan’s clinical interests include asthma, newborns, and adolescents.
Dr. Adesina from Kelsey-Seybold Clinic

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