I get a lot of questions from moms about various myths related to ear pain and infections, so today we’ll tackle the most common questions I hear. I hope you find them helpful.
Myth 1: All ear pain is from an ear infection
Ear infections are different than a simple earache. Both start as inflammation inside the ear from a buildup of fluid that isn’t draining properly. This can have many causes.
Most commonly, earaches are symptoms of a mild upper-respiratory-tract infection like the common cold. If your child has ear pain along with coughing, nasal congestion, or a sore throat, the earache may go away once the illness does.
If the pain doesn’t go away — or otherwise comes on suddenly — it’s important to recognize early signs and symptoms of an ear infection. Children with ear infections:
- Will pull on their ears or be very sensitive when anyone touches their ear, more so than with an earache
- May be more irritable, cry or fuss more than usual
- Eat less than normal
Fevers and temperature spikes are also common with ear infections, and parents should be vigilant about treating these.
Myth 2: All ear infections are treated by antibiotics
While antibiotics are a typical treatment for infections, it may not be what your doctor recommends for your child.
Guidelines from the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Association of Family Physicians suggest an observation period for some children first — 48 to 72 hours based on the child’s age, the diagnosis, and severity of the illness. Parents are encouraged to relieve their child’s symptoms in the meantime and have a ready means of communication with their doctor should symptoms get worse. After the observation period, antibiotics may be prescribed if needed.
Every child’s immune system is different so it can take weeks or months for the infection to heal. Making sure that the child is receiving adequate medication — antibiotic or not — will accelerate the healing process.
Myth 3: Tubes are an alternative to antibiotics
Getting tubes put in the ears is often synonymous with child ear infections. Insertion of these tubes is the most common outpatient surgery performed on children in the United States. You may have had them yourself.
The tubes are meant to support the eustachian tube inside the ear that typically allows fluid to drain properly. When the eustachian tube doesn’t stay open — as a child’s smaller eustachian tubes are prone to do — the fluid pools and can become infected.
Among other factors, candidates for this surgery have had an ear infection or recurring ear infections for longer than three months.
The tubes are not a replacement for medication; they’re a way to address a structural problem inside a child’s ear that’s leading to ear infections. Treatment of a current infection may still require an antibiotic or other medication.
Lessen your child’s risk of getting an ear infection
While many kids get ear infections, some are more likely to get them than others. There are ways you can reduce the chances your child will have an ear infection:
- Breastfed children are less likely to develop an ear infection.
- Eliminating exposure to tobacco smoke decreases your child’s risk significantly.
- Being up-to-date with immunizations, especially influenza and pneumococcal conjugate (PCV13) vaccines, decreases the risk.
While these things can help, don’t be surprised if your child still gets an ear infection. Watch for symptoms and get your child help as soon as they need it.
When to see a doctor
I would recommend scheduling an appointment with a physician within a few days of noticing symptoms of an ear infection, or if the initial symptoms fail to improve within the first few days. It’s important to get a definitive diagnosis and a physician will be able to provide that.
Emergency treatment for ear infections is generally not needed. Children with symptoms who are younger than 30 days, immunosuppressed, or have cochlear implants should be seen and evaluated right away. A severe infection or pus drainage from the ear can require emergency treatment.
Caring for a sick child can be stressful at times for any parent. Having a supportive medical team and seeking treatment early is essential.
Fairview Clinics – Uptown is one of more than a dozen Fairview clinics that offer walk-in care for sick kids, so if your child has an ear infection or a condition that needs care right away, our team is here to help.
By Fardows Salim, MD, family medicine physician, and obstetrician, Fairview Clinic in Uptown