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Ear infections in children

Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen MartinReviewed on 19.10.2023 | 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 and vomiting, they might have little appetite and be 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 not eat much. Their hearing may be reduced, and discharge may come from the ear. At times the ear can also go red and hot to the touch.

What can I do at home?

Most ear infections clear within 2 to 3 days on their own. You can give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain and fever. A cool, damp washcloth 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 ball.

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. Antibiotic ear drops can be used depending on the child's age and how well they are. Antibiotics do not work for a viral infection, but children’s bodies are good at clearing this. Meanwhile, keep them comfortable, with painkillers if needed, and let them rest 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 from getting into the ear. This can be done with earplugs, shower caps, or cotton balls. If your child's ears get wet, ensure they are thoroughly dried – you can use a hairdryer in a cool, gentle setting. Avoid cotton swabs or any objects in the ear to clear out wax or debris - the ear does this by itself.

Vaccinating against the flu virus reduces the number of viruses your child picks up, so we 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 have recurrent ear infections, see your doctor.

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This article has been written by UK-based doctors and pharmacists, so some advice may not apply to US users and some suggested treatments may not be available. For more information, please see our T&Cs.
Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed by Dr Karen Martin
Reviewed on 19.10.2023
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