Ear infections in babies and small children are common, with the majority of children having at least one episode by the time they turn 3 years old.i In most cases, it’s nothing to worry about and will clear up on its own in about 3 daysii. Keep reading Panadol’s helpful guide to find out about the different types, causes, symptoms and treatment of ear infections in children and babies.
There are many possible causes of ear infection in children, as well as a few different kinds of infection. The most common ear infection is known as acute otitis media, which is characterised by swollen and infected portions of the middle ear.i
Another type of ear infection is otitis externa, which affects the ear canal.iii Often referred to as ‘swimmer’s ear’, it is associated with frequent swimming, as prolonged exposure of the ear canal to water (which may carry bacteria) increases the risk of infection.iii
Otitis media is an infection or inflammation of the middle ear.iv The Eustachian tube is a narrow passageway that connects the upper part of the throat to the middle ear.v It is shorter and straighter in the child than in the adult. It can contribute to otitis media in several ways. One more factor that makes children more susceptible to otitis media is that adenoids in children are larger than they are in adultsvi. Enlarged adenoids can, because of their size, interfere with the Eustachian tube opening. In addition, adenoids may themselves become infected, and the infection may spread into the Eustachian tubes.iv
If your child complains about ear pain, look out for other signs of infection. The main signs of otitis media (especially in children too young to express themselves verbally) are:vii
- Crying more than usual
- Pulling or rubbing their ears
- Difficulty sleeping
As younger children and babies can’t explain what’s wrong when in pain, otitis media is often difficult to detect at this age. What’s more, younger kids tend to have more middle ear infections than older children because they have smaller Eustachian tubes that connect the middle ear to the throat.xv
The most common signs of an ear infection in babies and children include ear pain and irritability, often accompanied by a runny nose and sore throat.xv
Middle ear infections (otitis media) are often synonymous with a fever; sometimes this is the only symptom. With outer ear infections (otitis externa), your child may complain of a feeling of ‘fullness’ in the ear, and there may be discharge, too. In addition, your child’s ear may also appear red and swollen, and be painful to touch.viii
Find out what to do when your baby has a cold.
In most cases, otitis media improves in the first few days, and symptoms usually clear up without any treatment within a week or twoix. If the infection is causing your child discomfort, there are ways to manage the pain at home. Learn more about how to manage earache and ear infections in children.
Clinical practice guidelines recommend using analgesics such as paracetamol and ibuprofen for pain relief, as they can ease the pain of otitis media and help relieve fever.x
- Paracetamol can be given to babies older than 1 month to help relieve mild to moderate pain.xi
- Ibuprofen can be used for mild to moderate pain in children, adolescents and adults. It should not be used in children under three months of age, or those with bleeding disorders.xi
- Aspirin should never be given to children under the age of 12, unless advised by your doctor. It can cause a rare but serious illness called Reyes Syndrome.xi
- Never poke anything (such as cotton buds) into your child’s ear, even if they complain that their ear feels blocked.xii
- Don’t use ear drops unless they’re prescribed by a doctor or you’ve discussed them with a pharmacist.xii
Children’s ear infections usually clear up without treatment, however it’s a good idea to consult your doctor if your child is showing signs of:xiii
- Extreme drowsiness
- Difficulty breathing or wheezing
- Cold or discoloured hands or feet with a warm body
- A fever over 38.5°C
- Pain in their arms or legs
- Unusual skin colour (pale or blue) around their lips
- A rash that does not fade when applying pressure to the skin
- Pain and tenderness of the bone behind the ear
- Blood or discharge from the ear
In rare cases, your doctor may recommend a course of antibiotics if there’s a risk of bacterial infection. Talk to the doctor about the recommended dosage and always ensure that the full course of treatment is taken, even if the symptoms clear up before the course ends.
Find out what’s considered a normal temperature in kids and when to see a doctor.
Make sure your child washes their hands regularly to help protect them from germs. If possible, try to limit their time with other children who are infected, as this will help to prevent contagion.
It’s also a good idea to avoid situations where your baby or child is exposed to second-hand smoke, as studies suggest that this leads to increased risk of ear infection in children.xiv