Ear infections (detailed version)
Ear infections (detailed version)
Key points to remember about ear infections
- ear infections are very common in young children
- they can cause pain, and often fever
- antibiotics are not always needed
- pain relief is important
- there may be some fluid in the space behind the ear drum (middle ear) for several weeks or months after the infection. This is normal, and usually clears up on its own
- most children outgrow ear infections and have perfect and undamaged ears and normal hearing
if you think your child has an ear infection, take them to your family doctor
For a shorter version of this fact sheet, more suitable for printing, see:
- Ears: Ear infections – brief version (no photos or diagrams)
What does the inside of the ear look like?
What is an ear infection and how does it develop?
- an ear infection (acute otitis media) – discussed in this fact sheet
- germs (bacteria and viruses) from a cold (or other upper respiratory infection) travel up the Eustachian tube which connects the space behind the ear drum (middle ear) to the back of the nose
- the germs infect the space behind the ear drum
- the swelling and inflammation of the Eustachian tube, as a result of the infection, can cause the tube to become blocked
as a result, air cannot reach the space behind the ear drum
fluid and pus collects in the space behind the ear drum (see diagram below left)
the ear drum bulges out and becomes red and painful (see diagram below right)
the rapid stretching of the ear drum causes your child pain, and the infective process can cause fever
|Artwork copyright © Dr Peter Allen and printed with permission from the book “Understanding ear infections”. See Acknowledgements.|
Who gets ear infections?
What puts my child at risk of getting ear infections?
We know some important risk factors, but not all the reasons why some children develop more ear infections than others. The most important risk factors include:
- a family history of ear infections
- your child being exposed to cigarette smoke
- early child care where young babies and children are exposed to more colds / flu viruses; having an older brother or sister in child care or early primary school also increases the risk
- season of the year – ear infections are more common during the autumn and winter months
Can I do anything to prevent ear infections in my child?
It is not easy to prevent ear infections, but the following may help reduce the risk:
- keeping your child smoke-free
- breastfeeding your baby for three to six months is thought to be protective against the early development of ear infections. This may be because breast feeding boosts the immune system (the body's defence against potentially harmful germs)
What are the signs and symptoms of an ear infection?
|Younger children may also:
||Sometimes pus will burst through the ear drum.
Artwork copyright © Dr Peter Allen and printed with permission from the book “Understanding ear infections”. See Acknowledgements.
Are middle ear infections catching (contagious)?
How are middle ear infections diagnosed?
How long does an ear infection last?
What is the treatment for an ear infection?
Regular pain relief is important to help your child feel more comfortable. Paracetamol and / or ibuprofen can help reduce pain, and also lower fever which can make your child feel better. You must follow the dosage instructions on the bottle. It is dangerous to give more than the recommended dose. Your family doctor or pharmacist can advise you on the right dose of pain relief medicine for your child.
- wait to see whether the infection will clear up by itself, or
- recommend treatment with antibiotics, if your child is unwell and feverish
Your child's doctor will be happy to discuss your child's treatment with you so that you can be involved in the treatment decisions. The decision about whether or not to use antibiotics may depend on some of the following factors:
- how severe the infection is
- how old your child is
- how often your child has had middle ear infections before
- how long your child has had this infection
- whether your child has ever had complications from ear infections before
- whether your child has any other medical conditions
- your views on how to manage your child's ear problems
How can I care for my child at home?
- pain relief is important (see What is the treatment for an acute middle ear infection?)
- propping your child's head up with an extra pillow in bed may help reduce the pain
- your child may need rest and lots of comforting / cuddles
- keep your child home from child care or school while they are unwell or have a fever
Are there any complications from ear infections?
When should I seek help?
- your child's ear starts to discharge
- your child has a fever which doesn't go away after 24 – 48 hours
- you are worried about the continuing unwellness of your child
You need to take your child to a doctor immediately if your child:
- has any swelling, redness or tenderness in or around the ear
- is feeding poorly
- has any change in consciousness
- has a stiff neck
- has sensitivity to light
Where to go for more information
- information about the Universal Newborn Hearing Screening Programme
- a checklist - can your baby hear?
Please note: Permission to copy kidshealth fact sheets, with acknowledgement, does not extend to Dr Peter Allen's artwork on this page. Any requests to reproduce this artwork need to be made in writing to:
Dr Peter Allen
Central Family Health Care
7 Mansfield Terrace
© Paediatric Society of New Zealand and Starship Foundation 2005 – 2013
Printed on 23 May 2013. Content is regularly updated so please refer to www.kidshealth.org.nz for the most up-to-date version