How to Recognize Ear Infections in Young Children
Ear infections are one of the most common reasons for a trip to the pediatrician. By the time children reach three years old, nearly 85 percent have suffered an ear infection. The tough part for parents and guardians, however, is that kids are most likely to get an ear infection before they’re able to speak, which means they can’t tell you exactly what’s bothering them. It can take some detective work on your part to figure out the problem. If you know the signs and symptoms to look out for, your job will be a whole lot easier.
“There are a lot of different types of ear infections, which are categorized by where they are found in the ear,” said Kenneth Einhorn, MD, chief of the Otolaryngology Division at Abington-Jefferson Health. “The symptoms will vary depending on the type of infection, and they may not always be obvious if you don’t know what to look for.”
The Types of Ear Infections
You’ve likely heard of “swimmer’s ear,” which is also called otitis externa. It’s an infection of the outer portion of the ear and the ear canal. It’s common in the summer when many children spend lots of time swimming. Bacteria and fungus can become trapped in the ear canal, causing the infection, which leads to pain and discomfort, which usually becomes worse when chewing. Other symptoms can include itching and a feeling of fullness in the ear.
However, swimmer’s ear isn’t the type of ear infection that most infants and young children get. “By far the most common type of ear infection affects the middle ear,” said Dr. Einhorn. “The infection is located right behind the eardrum.”
This type of infection is called otitis media, and there are two subtypes that parents should be aware of since they have different symptoms:
- Acute Otitis Media (AOM): There is fluid in the middle ear and obvious symptoms of inflammation. The eardrum will be red and bulging, which the doctor will be able to see during the examination. Your child may have ear pain, hearing loss, a fever and fluid will sometimes drain from the ear.
- Otitis Media with Effusion (OME): With this type of ear infection, there will also be fluid in the middle ear. The eardrum may look dull and cloudy when the doctor examines it. However, there will not be the same obvious signs of infection. Hearing loss will be the only symptom.
“With the AOM type of ear infection, infants may be irritable or lethargic,” said Dr. Einhorn. “You may also observe them tugging their ear or rubbing it, since it will be painful.”
How Ear Infections Are Treated
“Antibiotics are the typical treatment for the AOM type of infection,” said Dr. Einhorn. “It’s the most common reason that antibiotics are prescribed for children.”
If your doctor cannot make a definite diagnosis for the AOM type of ear infection, he may recommend a period of “watchful waiting” before prescribing antibiotics to see if the earache goes away on its own. If it persists for longer than two days, then antibiotics are a good course of action.
Antibiotics will not help the OME type of ear infection; the best approach is to wait and see if it resolves on its own. However, if the infection lingers for longer than three months, it’s likely time to intervene. At that point, your doctor may recommend that your child see a specialist.
“When OME becomes chronic, you and your doctor may decide that tubes are the right treatment for your child,” said Dr. Einhorn. “These little tubes fit in the eardrum and allow the ear to ventilate and breathe, which can help resolve the problem.”
If your child is showing obvious signs of an ear infection or has a sudden loss of hearing, contact your doctor right away to schedule a checkup.
To find an Abington-Jefferson Health pediatrician, call 215-481-MEDI.