Ear Infections in Kids: 5 Answers for Worried Parents

Tips on ear infections, antibiotics and ear tubes
Ear infections in children

When your child seems to have ear pain and is acting cranky, you may suspect an ear infection. And chances are you’d be right. “Ear infections, called otitis media, are common between 6 months and 3 years of age,” says pediatric otolaryngologist Brandon Hopkins, MD.

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Caused by a virus or bacteria, ear infections may or may not accompany illness. Earaches can be acute or chronic:

  • Acute: An isolated episode of active ear infection that causes a painful ear, often with fevers. It often produces a temporary hearing loss.
  • Chronic: Fluid behind the eardrum is typically not infected but persists for more than three months. Because the fluid muffles hearing, it can prompt speech and language concerns.

Here, Dr. Hopkins answers five common questions for parents worried about a child’s ear infections:

1. What are the signs of an ear infection?

  • Pulling or tugging at the ears.
  • Ear drainage that’s milky white or yellowish white, with a foul odor.
  • A cranky or irritable mood.
  • A fever over 100 degrees F.
  • An upper respiratory infection.
  • The sense that your child can’t hear you when you ask questions.

2. How are ear infections treated?

Antibiotics aren’t always necessary and should be left to your doctor’s discretion. Your child may need a different approach to cure ear infections.

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

3. How long should you wait before considering ear tubes?

It may be time to think about ear tubes when your child has had:

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

4. What happens when your child gets ear tubes?

The surgery will take about 10 minutes to 15 minutes. Here’s what to expect:

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  • Your child will receive general anesthesia, usually through a face mask.
  • The surgeon will clear any wax and debris from the ears.
  • Tubes are inserted through a small surgical opening in the eardrums after any fluid is removed.
  • An over-the-counter pain reliever may be helpful but is not usually needed.
  • Eardrops can be used for a few days to keep the ear moist and to aid healing.

“Little recovery time is required. Children go home the same day their tubes are inserted,” Dr. Hopkins says. “They can go back to school or play with their friends the following day.”

5. Will your child need another surgery to remove the tubes?

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

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