Treating Ear Infections in Children

Ear infections in children are often the result of a condition known as acute otitis media (AOM). The problem often begins when infections that cause sore throats, colds, or other respiratory problems spread from the nose or the throat up the eustachian tube. The infections can be viral or bacterial. The tube, which is designed to drain fluids from the middle ear, then gets blocked. The infection can cause the middle ear to fill with fluid and become inflamed and painful.

Dr. Steven Merrill with Catawba Valley Family Medicine – Taylorsville says, “Children are more prone to ear infections for several reasons. The passages in their ears are narrower, shorter, and more horizontal than in adults. Because it’s easier for germs to reach the middle ear, it’s also easier for fluid to get trapped there. And just as children are still developing, so are their immune systems. Once the infection takes hold, it’s harder for a child’s body to fight it than it is for a healthy adult’s.”

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Communications Disorders (NIDCD), 75 percent of children get an ear infection by their third birthday. Half of them will have three or more episodes in the first three years of life. This is problematic because, in the worst case, the result can be hearing loss that can delay learning and speech development.

Symptoms & Treatments

If you’re an adult with an ear infection, you can recognize the symptoms – earache, a sense of fullness in the ear and, sometimes, muffled hearing. But if you’re a parent, you know that a one year old can’t tell you exactly what the problem is. NIDCD says that’s why it’s important for parents to recognize the symptoms:

  • unusual irritability
  • unable to sleep
  • pulling on one or both ears
  • fever
  • fluid coming out of an ear
  • falling down in older children
  • signs that a child isn’t hearing things, like sitting very close to the TV

If you suspect that your child has an earache, contact your primary care provider or pediatrician. A medical exam is needed to diagnose the cause. The provider can check the ear to see if there is an infection and prescribe treatment. A course of antibiotics may be ordered to fight the infection, if it is bacterial.

“Although ear infection remains the most common condition for which antibiotics are prescribed for children in the United States, fewer doctors are relying on them,” as Dr. Merrill points out, “It’s important to understand that taking antibiotics might or might not speed recovery, and overusing them can lead to bacteria developing resistance to the drugs, as the germs mutate to defend themselves against medicine. As a result, many providers have adopted a wait-and-see approach, rather than prescribing antibiotics at the first sign of infection.”

It is important to follow your medical provider’s directions carefully. If antibiotics really are needed, stopping them early could result in the infection returning. This is dangerous, because middle ear infections can lead to other problems such as ruptured eardrum. Some pain relievers may be offered during the acute period of the infection to give the child relief. The NIDCD says that if ear infections keep coming back and antibiotics aren’t helping, many providers will recommend a surgical procedure that places a small ventilation tube in the eardrum to improve airflow and prevent fluid backup in the middle ear. The most commonly used tubes stay in place for six to nine months and require follow-up visits until they fall out.


An ear infection itself is not contagious. The respiratory infection that gets it started, however, is contagious and can be avoided. Proper hygiene such as sneezing and coughing into tissues and then throwing the tissues away can help. What’s more, the NIDCD says there is evidence that breastfed children have fewer ear infections.

To make an appointment with Dr. Merrill or any of the providers at Catawba Valley Family Medicine – Taylorsville , please call 828.632.7076. The practice is located at 50 Macedonia Church Rd Suite A, Taylorsville, NC 28681.


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