Caring for Baby

Ear Infections: Causes and Cures

Ear Infections: Causes and Cures

You may be wondering why your baby is unusually fussy, crying or tugging on her ear. A likely culprit is an ear infection, which is an inflammation of the middle ear prompted by fluid building up behind the eardrum. Typically triggered by bacteria, this condition affects 5 out of 6 children before age 3 and is the most common reason for children’s doctor visits. One-quarter of all children will even experience repeated ear infections.

The high prevalence of ear infections among babies and children is a small comfort, however, when you think your own little one may be suffering from one. Here are answers to some of moms’ key questions about ear infections, known medically as otitis media.

Why Did My Baby Get an Ear Infection?

Age alone contributes to middle ear infections, with infants and young children experiencing far more of them than older kids and adults. Boys also tend to develop them more frequently than girls, and family history of the problem can also play a role.

Other ear infection triggers include:

  • Colds or sore throats caused by bacteria or viruses, which can spread into the middle ear.
  • Allergies, which can inflame nasal passages and the upper respiratory tract, blocking the ear’s Eustachian tube — which is shorter in children — or enlarging adenoids.
  • Chronic illnesses, especially asthma, cystic fibrosis or immune deficiencies.

How Can I Tell It’s an Ear Infection?

A major tip-off that your baby may have an ear infection is ear-tugging, irritability or excessive crying from the pain. Other clues include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fever
  • Loss of appetite
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Balance problems or clumsiness
  • Trouble hearing or responding to soft sounds

How Can I Prevent or Treat an Ear Infection?

The old saying about prevention being the best cure is certainly true for ear infections! But many ear infections in babies are unavoidable, though prompt treatment of cold or allergy symptoms may stop a potential ear infection in its tracks.

If you suspect your little one has an ear infection, ask your pediatrician to take a look at his inner ear using an instrument called an otoscope. An infection will show up as a red, inflamed or swollen eardrum, and other instruments or tests may also signal infection.

Some ear infections resolve on their own, while others require treatment with an antibiotic (prescribed at your pediatrician’s discretion). Other treatments include:

  • Pain relief such as acetaminophen, ibuprofen or warm compresses on the outside of the ear.
  • Swallowing fluids to relieve discomfort during air travel or anticipated air pressure changes.
  • Myringotomy, an outpatient surgical procedure to insert small metal or plastic tubes through the eardrum to equalize pressure between the inner and outer ear. This surgery is typically reserved for children who experience repeated ear infections over a long period.