Babies and toddlers frequently get ear infections. According to the US National Institutes of Health, five out of every six children experience an ear infection before age three.
Ear infections occur when there is inflammation, usually caused by trapped bacteria. The most common ear infection affects the middle part of the ear, where it connects to the back of the nose and throat.
Bacteria can spread to the middle ear through the eustachian tubes if your child has a sore throat, cold, or upper respiratory infection (the channels that connect the middle ear to the throat). Fluid accumulates behind the eardrum due to the condition, which leads to infection. Of course, kids can get ear infections even if they don’t have a cold.
Young children can get ear infections even before they can talk. As a result, parents are frequently left wondering why their child appears to be struggling. When your child is unable to express that “my ear hurts,” the following symptoms suggest that an ear infection is to blame:
- Difficulty hearing or responding to auditory cues
- Fluid draining from the ear
- Difficulty sleeping
- Tugging or pulling the ear
- Fever, especially in younger children
- Loss of balance
- Crying and irritability
Your best bet for avoiding ear infections is to follow the same precautions you take to prevent COVID-19, colds, and the flu:
- Vaccinate your child. Vaccinated children are less likely to get ear infections because they are exposed to fewer viruses.
- Wash your hands. Teach your child proper handwashing techniques as soon as possible: Scrub for 20 seconds after lathering up with soap and water (about how long it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song).
- Keep your child upright while feeding. Fluid is less likely to enter the middle ear when your child sits up during feeding.
- Avoid sick people. Although you can’t protect your child from the outside world, the reality is that many children who develop ear infections do so as a result of contracting illnesses at daycare or school. Try to avoid children and adults who are ill with respiratory conditions.
Speak to your doctor if your kid experiences recurrent infections—more than three in six months or four in a year—or experiences one or two serious illnesses that are difficult to treat.
Ear tubes might be an option for your child. Surgeons insert a small plastic tube inside the eardrum, bypassing the eustachian tube and nose, to increase airflow and provide a new exit point for fluid. Fortunately, children’s eustachian tubes grow vertically and come out naturally, and their immune systems become more powerful as they grow.