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Ear infection in children - acute otitis media

Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger HendersonReviewed on 13.10.2023 | 3 minutes read

An ear infection can affect the middle ear, just beyond the eardrum, causing inflammation and pain, and this is called acute otitis media. Bacteria or viruses can cause the infection, but either way, it usually gets better by itself after about 3 days.

The middle ear can fill with pus and the pressure can cause pain. Children can get ear infections due to a cold, flu, letting too much water in the ear after bathing or swimming, or constant allergies.

Doctor’s advice

What symptoms suggest ear infection?

An ear infection causes pain and a feeling of pressure inside the ear. Older children will be able to tell you this, but for younger children and babies, look out for signs like rubbing or tugging at the ear, losing their balance and being a bit irritable and restless.

Children may get a fever, vomiting, they might be off their food and lacking in energy, and they may be more clingy with you.

They can feel pain when sleeping on the affected side and experience pain when chewing or swallowing food and drink, so they may be off their food. Their hearing may be reduced and discharge may come from the ear. At times the ear can go red and hot to the touch as well.

What can I do at home?

Most ear infections clear within 2 to 3 days on their own. You can give your child paracetamol or ibuprofen for the pain relief and any fever. A cool damp flannel may help relieve a sore red ear.

You should never use cotton buds inside the ear, as they can cause damage, but any discharge can be gently wiped from the outside of the ear with a cotton wool pad.

If this is not helping and the pain is still there after 3 days or it is getting worse, it’s worth discussing this with your doctor. You should see your doctor for any swelling around the ear.

What’s the treatment for an ear infection?

Your doctor will ask you questions and examine the inside of the ears, looking for where any infection or inflammation is and how bad it is. An ear infection can be in the middle ear (otitis media) or the ear canal (otitis externa), and different treatments are offered for each of these.

Alternatively your doctor may see irritation from eczema in the canal or a tiny boil that’s causing pain.

For a bacterial infection, antibiotics by mouth such as amoxicillin for 5 to 7 days will be offered. Depending on the age of the child and how well they are, antibiotic ear drops or sprays can be used. Antibiotics do not work for a viral infection, but their bodies are good at clearing this. Meanwhile, keep them comfortable, with painkillers if needed, and let them rest up until they are over the infection.

How can I prevent future ear infections?

If your child is prone to ear infections, try to avoid water or shampoo getting into the ear. This can be done with ear plugs, shower caps or cotton wool. If your child's ears do get wet, ensure that they are thoroughly dried – you can use a hairdryer on a cool gentle setting. Avoid cotton buds or any objects in the ear to clear out wax or debris - the ear does a great job of this by itself.

Vaccinating against the flu virus reduces the number of viruses your child picks up, sp we would recommend you take up the offer of a yearly flu vaccination.

If your child suffers from congestion, it is advised to seek treatment. If they are having recurrent ear infections, see your doctor. 

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Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed by Dr Roger Henderson
Reviewed on 13.10.2023
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