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Ear infections 101

Ear infections are common in babies and toddlers. But the problem can be tough to spot when your tot is too young to complain about ear pain. Here's what to look for—and what to do if you think your little one is affected.

Spot the signs

Ear infections happen when fluid builds up behind the eardrum, causing inflammation of the middle ear. Your child might cope with the pain and pressure by tugging their ear, but not always. According to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, other common signs of an ear infection include:

  • Crying more than usual, especially when lying down.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Being less responsive to verbal cues, which could signal trouble hearing.
  • Fever.
  • Fluid draining from the ears.

Try at-home measures first

Ear infections are typically caused by viral infections or bacterial growth and usually clear up their own, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics. In the meantime, give your child plenty of opportunities for rest. Offer plenty of age-appropriate fluids too.

Over-the-counter pain relievers like ibuprofen or acetaminophen can help take the edge off the pain. (Babies under 6 months should not take ibuprofen.) Steer clear of cough or cold medicines, which can be dangerous for children under 4 years.

Check in with the doctor

It never hurts to call the pediatrician if you suspect your child has an ear infection. But they may suggest you wait 48 to 72 hours before coming in for a visit. That gives the infection a chance to resolve naturally. If it doesn't, the doctor may want to do an exam and prescribe antibiotics.

If your baby's symptoms are serious or seem to be very bothersome, the doctor might ask you to come in sooner. Seek medical attention right away if your baby is under 3 months and has a fever of 100.4 or higher. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, other signs it's time for an in-person visit include:

  • A fever of 102.2 or higher.
  • Pus or fluid coming out of the ear.
  • Worsening symptoms.
  • Symptoms that have already lasted two to three days.

Fend off future infections

Focus on prevention once your little patient is on the mend. Start by making sure your child is up-to-date with their shots, including the flu shot. Studies show that vaccinated kids get fewer ear infections. Never put a baby down to sleep with a bottle, even for a nap. And if you or a family member smokes, quit as soon as you can. Secondhand smoke increases a child's chance for illness, including ear infections.

Finally, wash your hands often and help your child learn to do the same. It's the best way to prevent germs from spreading.

Reviewed 9/8/2022

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