Ear infections in young children are one of the most bothersome illnesses for both parents and children to go through, especially if they are recurrent. It’s also one of the most common reasons for a doctor to prescribe antibiotics for children. This article serves as a guide to help you understand why ear infections occur, what the best treatments are, and most importantly, how you can prevent them from happening too regularly.
An ear infection is basically an inflammation of the middle ear, usually caused by bacteria, that occurs when fluid builds up behind the eardrum. While anyone can get an ear infection, children get them more often than adults. In fact, five out of six children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday, and it is usually the most common reason parents bring their child to a doctor. The scientific name for an ear infection is otitis media (OM).
Knowing if your baby has an ear infection
Because your baby doesn't yet have the language skills to let you know how she is feeling, it can be rather testing to tell if your baby has an infection. If she has a cough or runny nose, and abruptly develops a fever three days to five days later, she may have an ear infection. She may also tug at her ear or be out of sorts. If she is toddling, she may have balance problems and be gawkier than usual.
Also, if your baby becomes more upset when she's lying down, an ear infection may be to blame, because that position puts pressure on the eustachian tubes. Other indicators of an ear infection can include difficulty sleeping, diminished appetite, vomiting, or diarrhea.
How common ear infections are
Ear infections are very common in babies and young children, especially in the winter. Most occur in babies aged six months to 18 months, but they can appear at any age. The reason is unknown, but boys are also more likely to get ear infections than girls.
Likely reasons why your baby has an ear infection
Your baby probably has a cold, which has caused her middle ear to become swollen. The swelling has trapped fluid inside her ear. This creates a warm, wet environment where bacteria and viruses can spread. When the infection sets in, pus develops and pressure on your baby's eardrum causes it to bulge and become inflamed. Your baby may then get a fever as her body attempts to fight the infection. This type of ear infection is called acute otitis media.
Another reason your baby can get ear infections is because the tube in her middle ear is short and horizontal, as it's still developing. As she grows up, the tube will triple in length from 1.25cm to 3.8cm and become more vertical, reducing the chance of infection.
How to treat your baby’s ear infection
Most ear infections clear up quickly on their own, but it is a good idea to take your baby to your doctor if:
- your baby is younger than three months old
- symptoms do not get better after 24 hours
- your baby is in a lot of pain
- there is fluid coming out of your baby's ear
- both of your baby's ears are infected
If your baby is very unwell and the infection is not caused by a virus, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. Your baby's ear should start to improve in three days or four days, with or without antibiotics.
You can also give your baby infant paracetamol or ibuprofen if she is three months or older. This will reduce the pain and fever. Also offer her plenty of breastfeeds to keep her hydrated.
There are some things you can do to help prevent your baby getting an ear infection:
- Sit your baby up to give her a feed, rather than holding her lying on her back.
- Try not to give your baby a dummy. If you do use one, try to limit the amount of time your baby has it.
- Don't smoke or allow anyone else to smoke around your baby.
- Check that your baby has had the pneumococcal vaccine. The vaccine can reduce the risk of ear infection in some children.
- If possible, try not to put your baby in a nursery when she is younger than a year old. Nurseries can expose her to more coughs and colds, which can lead to more ear infections.
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