Ear Infection in Children

When people say "ear infection," they usually mean infections of the middle ear, or otitis media.

Though adults also experience them, ear infection is one of the most common reasons parents take their children to see the doctor. In fact, five out of six children have at least one ear infection before they turn three.

Remarkable Care for Kids

  • Team-based approach: Many of the doctors at Rush Pediatric Primary Care are board-certified in pediatrics and other specialties. Physicians at Rush take a team-based, multidisciplinary approach to treating childhood illness, whether common or rare.
  • Expertise you can trust: In the Department of Otorhinolaryngology, pediatric and adult specialists address a full range of ear, nose and throat (ENT) conditions — including ear infections and complications of ear infections — in patients of all ages.
  • Nationally recognized for excellence: The ENT Program at Rush is ranked among the best in the nation by U.S. News & World Report and is the highest ranked ENT program in Illinois.

What is ear infection?

The vast majority of middle ear infections are effectively treated by your child's pediatrician or your primary care doctor. Sometimes, antibiotics are not needed and the ear infection clears up on its own. In some cases, however, an ear infection can spread and may even result in long-term hearing loss or other complications if left untreated.

These are the three main types of ear infection:

  • Acute otitis media: The most common type, usually caused by bacteria but sometimes viruses. This type is more common in children than in adults. It can often occur after an upper respiratory infection.
  • Otitis media with effusion: The name for non-infected fluid behind the ear drum; this is normal following an episode of acute otitis media or even after a cold, and typically goes away on its own within three months.
  • Otitis externa, or swimmer's ear: An infection that affects the ear canal. This type is more common in adults. The most common cause of swimmer's ear is germs in pools and other recreational water venues.

Symptoms of ear infection

Common symptoms of middle ear infections in children or adults include the following:

  • Ear pain
  • Fever
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Congestion
  • Headaches
  • Pulling at ears
  • Fluid in or draining from ears
  • Feeling of fullness or clogged ear and trouble hearing
  • Drainage from the infected ear (if ear tubes are present, or if the ear drum has ruptured)

Symptoms of swimmer's ear include the following:

  • Itchiness inside the ear
  • Redness or swelling of the ear
  • Ear pain
  • Drainage from the infected ear

How can I get help for ear infection?

Emergency care

Call your doctor right away or go to an urgent care facility or emergency room if you or your child has a high fever (above 104 for adults and children or any fever in infants) or if the ear pain is severe.

Diagnosis

Your primary care physician or pediatrician can diagnose ear infections during a physical exam by looking in your or your child's ears with an otoscope, a lighted instrument.

To help determine what may be causing the ear infection, it is important to tell the doctor about any symptoms and when they started, especially for children.

If the ear infection is complex or there are complications, your doctor may refer you to a specialist at Rush, such as an ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor or a pediatric ENT. These doctors are highly skilled in treating complex or frequent ear infections, with complications that may include one or more of the following:

  • Infection that spreads to the bones of the ear
  • Infection that spreads to the fluid around the brain and spinal cord
  • Hearing loss
  • Ruptured eardrum

Care for ear infection at Rush

If you or your child needs treatment for an ear infection, doctors at Rush can help.

  • Watchful waiting: Because ear infections often clear up without treatment, your doctor may not recommend antibiotics right away. Treatment usually begins with the following:
    • Managing pain with ear drops, ibuprofen or other over-the-counter pain relievers
    • Monitoring the condition to allow time for it to heal itself. Some complications of ear infections also heal over time. Ruptured eardrums commonly heal within two months and hearing loss is usually short-term.
  • Medication: Antibiotics may or may not help, depending on whether the ear infection is caused by bacteria or a virus. If symptoms do not improve or fever develops, your doctor or your pediatrician may prescribe antibiotics to treat ear infection.
  • Surgery: If your child has frequent ear infections that do not respond to antibiotics, your doctor may recommend surgery to insert small tubes into the eardrum to allow fluid to drain.