Ear infections are the scourge of parents everywhere. They’re so common that it is estimated that 5 out of 6 children get an infection of the middle ear (a condition known as ottis media) at least once before they reach the age of three.1 Less commonly, they might also get infections in their ear canal and outer ear (a condition known as otitis externa) or inner ear (a condition known as labyrinthitis). So how do you spot if your child has an ear infection? We have some answers!
Understanding Different Types Of Ear Infections In Toddlers
Middle ear infections, the most common infection among children, usually develop when mucus builds up in the middle ear because of an illness like the common cold. As a result, the Eustachian tube, the tube which connects the middle ear to the back of your nose, becomes inflamed or blocked, preventing prevents mucus from draining properly and causing infection to spread to the middle ear. Sometimes, the Eustachian tube can also be blocked when soft tissue behind the throat, known as adenoids, becomes enlarged.2
Outer ear infections are usually caused by bacteria, though fungal infections, allergies, or irritation may also be responsible. They are more likely if the child constantly gets water in the ears or injures the skin in the ears. This creates an environment where germs can thrive.3
Inner ear infections generally develop as a result of a viral infection like the flu or cold spreading from the nose, chest, or mouth to the inner ear. Other viral infections like measles or mumps can also cause labyrinthitis. Also, if you have a middle ear infection or meningitis, bacteria can spread to the inner ear. 4
Symptoms Of Ear Infections In Babies
Here are some common symptoms that accompany an ear infection.
Symptoms Of Middle Ear Infection
When you have an infection the fluid present in the middle ear can push against your eardrum and cause pain. An earache can be a dull, burning, or sharp sensation. If your child is not old enough to be able to tell you that her ear hurts, you need to look out signs that indicate pain. For instance, she may tug at her ear, cry, or act fussy or irritable. As chewing, sucking, and lying down can cause pressure changes in the middle ear, again causing pain, you may find that your baby also eats less or finds it difficult to sleep.5 6
As the middle ear gets filled with mucus and fluid, it becomes difficult for sound to travel through. Your baby may, therefore, experience some hearing loss.7 If you find that your baby doesn’t respond to sounds that are low in volume or seems inattentive, it could point to hearing loss.
Discharge From The Ears
In some cases, children with an infection can develop a hole in their eardrum through which the fluid which has been building up might come out. This fluid, which causes pain by pushing against the eardrum, then drains out as a discharge. When this happens, you’ll also find that your baby’s earache is subsiding.
The infection can also cause a fever in your child. A temperature equal to or higher than 100.4°F (or 38°C) is considered to be a fever in children under the age of five. If your baby feels warmer than normal when you touch her forehead, back, or stomach, or if she’s sweaty, clammy, or flushed use a thermometer to check her temperature.8
Problems With Balance
Though it can be difficult to identify problems with balance in very small children, sometimes you’ll notice that your child seems dizzy or clumsier than usual.
Nausea Or Vomiting
Ear infections can sometimes cause nausea or vomiting in small children. If your baby or toddler is throwing up, make sure she doesn’t get dehydrated.
Your baby may also pass watery stools when she gets an ear infection. And this is another condition where you have to watch out for dehydration.
Cough And Cold
Since they’re often associated with upper respiratory tract infections like colds, you might find that symptoms like a runny nose or a cough accompany your baby’s ear infection.9
Symptoms Of Outer Ear Infection
Your baby may get an earache. There could also be a feeling of fullness or pressure inside the ear, leading to discomfort. And she may experience pain when she moves her jaw or if you pull her ear. Look out for crankiness or irritation when you move her or tug at her ear.
The ear canal, or the area around it, may be irritated, leading to an itch in and around the canal. If your baby is scratching her ear this could point to irritation.
Swelling And Redness
The ear canal and the area around it may look swollen or red.
You may notice the scaly skin around or in the ear canal. Sometimes this skin could peel off.
Is there a discharge coming out of your baby’s ear? This discharge could be either watery or thick in nature and may also smell foul..
Sore And Swollen Glands
You may notice sore and swollen glands in your baby’s throat.
Your baby may also experience some hearing loss.10
Symptoms Of Inner Ear Infection
Your child may feel dizzy or even experience vertigo, which is a sensation that she, or the room, is spinning. You may notice your toddler losing balance, for instance, by falling to one side.
Loss Of Hearing
There could be a mild or complete loss of hearing.
There might be a sense of pressure building up inside the ear. As a result, the child may seem cranky or fussy.
Your baby may hear humming or ringing sounds in the ear. The child may be irritable or inattentive due to this. Sleep may also be hard to come by because of the disturbing sound.
Look out for a fever of or higher than 100.4°F (or 38°C).
Nausea Or Vomiting
Nausea or vomiting is again common in outer ear infections.
A discharge from your baby’s ear is a sign of an infection.
Your baby may experience problems with vision. For instance, vision may get blurred or your baby’s eyes might move on their own making it difficult for her to focus. Pay attention if it seems like your baby doesn’t seem attracted by things like bright toys that she previously liked or finds it difficult to focus her eyes.11 12
In A Nutshell: How To Tell If Your Child Has An Ear Infection
Because infants and toddlers don’t have the language skills to express their discomfort, spotting an ear infection can often be an uphill task for parents. So how can you be alert to an ear infection? Here are the most common telltale signs.
- Pain, discomfort, irritability. Your child may not necessarily tug at her ears, but if she’s irritable generally and is responding crankily when you touch her face or when her position changes (say, when she gets up or lies down), that’s a sign the ear is hurting.
- A fever is a hallmark sign of middle and inner ear infections.
- The baby has difficulty sleeping. She may also cry or be cranky when you put her down. This is because the sleeping position puts additional pressure on the ears.
- Loss of appetite, diarrhea, and vomiting can all be linked to an ear infection.
- An ear discharge is definitely a red flag!
In many cases, ear infections clear up on their own in around three days. If there is fever or signs of pain and they persist, see a doctor. Your doctor may advise ear drops, antibiotics, or pain medication to help your child. Don’t put any oil, eardrops, or an earbud into the ear unless advised by your doctor.
Your baby might have issues with hearing for about 2 to 6 weeks after an ear infection. Do check in with a doctor if the problem is taking longer to resolve.13
|↑1||Ear Infections in Children. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑2||Middle ear infection (otitis media). National Health Service.|
|↑3||Otitis externa. National Health Service.|
|↑4||Labyrinthitis. National Health Service.|
|↑5, ↑9||Middle Ear Infections. Nemours Foundation.|
|↑6||Earache. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑7||Ear Infections. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑8||Treating a fever (high temperature) in children. National Health Service.|
|↑10||Otitis externa – Symptoms. National Health Service.|
|↑11||Labyrinthitis. NHS Inform.|
|↑12||Labyrinthitis. National Institutes of Health.|
|↑13||Colds, coughs and ear infections in children. National Health Service.|