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Little ears, big aches

An ear infection can make an ordinarily happy child miserable.

But it's something your child will probably have to face. Ear infections are one of the most common childhood illnesses, says the American Academy of Family Physicians

Treatment can usually clear an ear infection without any lasting problems. But an untreated infection could cause permanent hearing damage.

Behind the infection

An ear infection may start with a blocked eustachian tube—the passage between the middle ear and the throat that allows air to enter the middle ear and fluids to drain out, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). A blocked tube can trap germ-filled fluid in your child's middle ear and cause an infection.

Children have more frequent ear infections than adults because their eustachian tubes are shorter and smaller, making it easier for the tubes to become clogged and trap fluid.

Some children may also be more vulnerable to ear infections because of allergies or a cold, their sex (boys have more ear infections than girls), a family history of frequent ear infections, exposure to tobacco smoke, or bottle-feeding.

The first signs

If your child shows any of these symptoms, go to a pediatrician, advises the AAP:

Pain. This is the most common symptom. If your child is too young to talk, watch for crying, irritability or pulling at the ear. Pain will probably be the worst when your child eats or lies down. These activities put added pressure on the ears.

Fever. Watch for a temperature ranging from 100 to 104 degrees.

Hearing trouble. Fluid trapped in the ear can keep sound from the eardrum. But your child's hearing should return to normal after the fluid drains away.

Make it better

Treatment for an ear infection should have your child feeling better within a few days. Some of the treatments your child's doctor may prescribe include:

  • Pain relievers. A pain reliever such as Tylenol can reduce fever and ease pain. Don't give your child aspirin without a doctor's OK. Aspirin can cause serious illness in kids.
  • Antibiotics. Doctors used to prescribe antibiotics for ear infections more often than they do today. Your doctor is more likely to ask you to observe your child for a couple days before giving antibiotics. If the doctor does prescribe antibiotics, make sure your child takes all of the medicine, even if he or she seems better before it's gone. If you don't, the infection could come back.

You can also ask your doctor about home remedies to ease your child's pain. Home remedies (depending on the child's age) can include placing a cold pack or cold wet washcloth on your child's ear for 20 minutes and having your child rest in an upright position instead of lying down.

To reduce your child's risk of ear infections:

  • Breastfeed.
  • If you bottle-feed, hold your child's head above the level of his or her stomach during feedings.
  • Keep your child away from tobacco smoke.
  • Keep your child's hands clean.
  • Keep your child current on vaccinations.

Reviewed 9/22/2023

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