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This topic covers
infections of the middle ear, commonly called
ear infections. For information on outer ear
infections, see the topic
Ear Canal Problems (Swimmer's Ear). For information on inner ear infections,
see the topic
What is a middle ear infection?
middle ear is the small part of your ear behind your eardrum. It can get
infected when germs from the nose and throat are trapped there.
What causes a middle ear infection?
A small tube
connects your ear to your throat. These two tubes are called eustachian tubes (say "yoo-STAY-shee-un"). A cold can cause this tube to swell. When the
tube swells enough to become blocked, it can trap fluid inside your ear. This
makes it a perfect place for germs to grow and cause an infection.
Ear infections happen mostly to young children, because their tubes are
smaller and get blocked more easily.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptom is an
earache. It can be mild, or it can hurt a lot. Babies and young children may be
fussy. They may pull at their ears and cry. They may have trouble sleeping.
They may also have a fever.
You may see thick, yellow fluid coming
from their ears. This happens when the infection has caused the eardrum to
burst and the fluid flows out. This is not serious and usually makes the pain
go away. The eardrum usually heals on its own.
When fluid builds
up but does not get infected, children often say that their ears just feel
plugged. They may have trouble hearing, but their hearing usually returns to
normal after the fluid is gone. It may take weeks for the fluid to drain away.
How is a middle ear infection diagnosed?
doctor will talk to you about your child's symptoms. Then he or she will look
into your child's ears. A special tool with a light lets the doctor see the
eardrum and tell whether there is fluid behind it. This exam is rarely
uncomfortable. It bothers some children more than others.
How is it treated?
Most ear infections go away on
their own, although antibiotics are recommended for children under the age of 2 and for children at high risk for complications. You can treat your child at home with an
over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen
(such as Tylenol), a warm washcloth or heating pad on the ear, and rest.
Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. Your
doctor may give you eardrops that can help your child's pain.
Sometimes after an infection, a child cannot hear well for a while. Call
your doctor if this lasts for 3 to 4 months. Children need to be able to hear
in order to learn how to talk.
Your doctor can give your child
antibiotics, but ear infections often get better
without them. Talk about this with your doctor. Whether you use them will
depend on how old your child is and how bad the infection is.
Minor surgery to put tubes in the ears may help if your child has hearing
problems or repeat infections.
Can ear infections be prevented?
There are many
ways to help prevent ear infections. Do not smoke. Ear infections happen more
often to children who are around cigarette smoke. Even the fumes from tobacco
smoke on your hair and clothes can affect them. Hand-washing and having your
child immunized can help, too.
Also, make sure your child does not
go to sleep while sucking on a bottle. And try to limit the use of group child
Frequently Asked Questions
Learning about ear infections:
- What is a middle ear infection?
- What causes a middle ear infection?
- What are the symptoms?
- How long does an ear infection last?
- Does it always occur during another illness, like a cold?
- How is an ear infection diagnosed?
- How soon do I need to start treatment for my child's ear infection?
- Can I treat my child's ear infection at home?
- What medicines are used to treat an ear infection?
- Should I give my child antibiotics for an ear infection?
- Should I have my child treated for fluid buildup in the ear?
- What if my child's ear infection does not improve?
- What if it keeps coming back?
- Can an ear infection be prevented?
Helping a sick child:
- How can I help my child feel better?