An ear infection is an infection behind the eardrum. The most common kind of ear infection in children is called otitis media. It can be caused by a virus or bacteria.
An ear infection usually starts with a cold. A cold can cause swelling in the small tube that connects each ear to the throat. These two tubes are called eustachian (say "yoo-STAY-shun") tubes. Swelling can block the tube and trap fluid inside the ear. This makes it a perfect place for bacteria or viruses to grow and cause an infection.
Ear infections happen mostly to young children. This is because their eustachian tubes are smaller and get blocked more easily.
An ear infection can be painful. Children with ear infections often fuss and cry, pull at their ears, and sleep poorly. Older children will often tell you that their ear hurts.
Your doctor will discuss treatment with you based on your child's age and symptoms. Many children just need rest and home care.
Regular doses of pain medicine are the best way to reduce fever and help your child feel better. You can give your child acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) for fever or pain. Your doctor may also give you eardrops to help your child's pain. Be safe with medicines. Read and follow all instructions on the label. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 18. It has been linked to Reye syndrome, a serious illness.
Doctors often take a wait-and-see approach to treating ear infections, especially in children 6 months and older who aren't very sick. A doctor may wait for 2 or 3 days to see if the ear infection improves on its own. If the child doesn't get better with home care, including pain medicine, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics then.
Antibiotics often are not needed to treat an ear infection.
There are good reasons not to give antibiotics if they are not needed.
Follow-up care is a key part of your child's treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if your child is having problems. It's also a good idea to know your child's test results and keep a list of the medicines your child takes.
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Current as of: May 12, 2017
John Pope, MD, MPH - Pediatrics
& Kathleen Romito, MD - Family Medicine & E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine & Adam Husney, MD - Family Medicine
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