If your little one is cranky, unusually fussy and tugging at his or her ear, chances are that an ear infection may be developing.
Five out of six children experience an ear infection by the time they are 3 years old, according to the National Institutes of Health. The odds are that your child will have an ear infection before kindergarten.
Ear infections can be caused by either bacteria or a virus, often following a cold. The common cold can cause the middle ear to become inflamed and fluid to build up behind the eardrum. The Eustachian tube, which connects the ears, nose and throat, can also become swollen.
“Children are more susceptible to ear infections than adults because they have shorter and narrower Eustachian tubes, and it is easier for germs to reach the middle ear and for fluid to get trapped there,” says Kara Hutton, MD, a pediatrician at Scripps Clinic Rancho Bernardo. “Babies and children also have weaker immune systems, so it is more difficult for their bodies to fight an infection.”
If you suspect your child has an ear infection, your pediatrician can diagnose it and determine if antibiotics are necessary.
“Common ear infections often do not require antibiotics, except in severe cases or in infants younger than six months,” says Dr. Hutton. “Many ear infections will resolve on their own within a week.”
While you can’t fend off every germ, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of an ear infection.
“Breastfeeding can help prevent ear infections by passing along immunities and helps the tube in the inner ear function better,” says Dr. Hutton.
When you use a bottle, avoid letting your baby have it while he or she is lying flat, as the formula can get into the Eustachian tubes and middle ear leading to an infection. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends breastfeeding your baby exclusively for the first six months.
Exposure to secondhand smoke, which contains more than 7,000 chemicals, increases both the number of ear infections a child will experience and the duration, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Do not allow anyone to smoke in or near your home or in your car. Make sure that your children’s daycare and school are tobacco-free zones.
Wash up often as it is one of the most effective ways to stop the spread of germs that can cause colds that lead to ear infections. Teach your children to also get in the habit of washing their hands, especially after playing with other kids.
Talk to your pediatrician about the flu vaccine and the vaccines that protect against pneumonia and meningitis.
Your child doesn’t have to suffer needlessly. There are simple, effective ways to reduce your child’s discomfort and pain during an ear infection. Even if antibiotics are prescribed, they won’t take effect for 24 to 48 hours.
Applying low heat to the affected ear may help pain. Use a washcloth and apply for about 10 to 15 minutes, or until it becomes cool.
“Make sure that the compress is only warm, not hot,” says Dr. Hutton.
Over-the-counter medications can reduce pain and fever if your child is older than 6 months. Use the medications as recommended by your pediatrician.
“It’s very important to follow the instructions carefully and give the appropriate dosage according to your child’s weight and age,” says Dr. Hutton.
Swallowing can help open the Eustachian tube so the fluid can drain and helps the immune system fight the infection.
“Keeping your child’s head elevated can ease some of the pressure,” says Dr. Hutton.
If your child is older than 2 and no longer sleeps in a crib, use a pillow, but never use a pillow with an infant. You can keep an infant upright in a car seat to alleviate pressure.
Talk with your pediatrician if your child suffers recurrent ear infections, especially if you have a family history of allergies and asthma.