5 Signs Your Child May Have an Ear Infection

What you need to know about ear infections, ear tubes

child getting ear exam

Children often tug on their ears when they’re sleepy, but ear tugging and irritability also can be a sign of an infection.

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“Ear infections, also know as otitis media, are a common ailment for children from 6 months to 3 years old,” says Brandon Hopkins, MD, a pediatric otolaryngologist and head and neck surgeon who practices at Cleveland Clinic’s Willoughby Hills Family Health Center.

Types of ear infections

Ear infections can be caused by either a virus or bacteria. They often begin when a child is sick, but some infections don’t accompany an illness.

  • Acute ear infections:  Single, short painful infections where the fluid behind the eardrum isn’t draining properly. These sometimes cause a brief hearing loss.
  • Chronic ear infections:  Fluid, swelling or an infection behind the eardrum that does not go away or keeps coming back — as many as three times in a six-month period. These can cause long-term or permanent damage to the ear.

Here are Dr. Hopkins’ answers to common questions that parents have about ear infections and ear tubes:

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What are signs that my child may have an ear infection?

  • Pulling or tugging the ears
  • Ear drainage — milky white or yellowish white with a foul odor
  • Cranky or irritable mood
  • Fever greater than 100 degrees
  • Upper respiratory infection

How are ear infections treated?

Antibiotics aren’t always called for and should be left to your doctor’s discretion. Another approach to curing ear infections may be necessary.

“If it seems like your child has an ear infection every time you turn around and it’s become a quality-of-life concern, it may be time to consider another option,” Dr. Hopkins says. “Ear tubes allow the ear to drain, which helps to decrease pain and the risk of future infections.”

When is it time to consider ear tubes?

It may be time to consider ear tubes if your child has had: 

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  • Three ear infections in six months or four infections in 12 months
  • Any ear infection not resolved with antibiotics
  • Hearing loss caused by fluid buildup behind the eardrum, especially if the hearing loss  lasts more than three months.

What happens when my child has ear tubes inserted?

  • General anesthesia is administered, usually through a face mask.
  • The doctor (surgeon) clears wax and debris from the ears.
  • The surgeon inserts the tubes through small surgical opening in the eardrums. Surgery takes about 10 minutes to 15 minutes.
  • An over-the-counter pain reliever can be taken for pain, but is not usually necessary.
  • Eardrops are used for a few days to keep the ear moist and aid in healing.

“There is little recovery time — the child goes home the same day they have tubes inserted,” Dr. Hopkins says. “They can go back to school or play with their friends the next day.”

Does my child need another surgery to remove the tubes?

Tubes usually fall out on their own within two years after insertion, Dr. Hopkins says. “The child probably won’t even notice when they come out.”

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