An ear infection occurs when fluid gets trapped in the eustachian tube, the tiny tube that helps to equalize the pressure of the middle ear. You’ve experienced this blockage before; think of the full feeling you get in your ears when you have a bad cold or are miserable from seasonal allergies. The fluid itself is uncomfortable, but the infection happens when bacteria or a virus gets into the trapped fluid and starts to multiply. Then the infection creates pus, a lot of pain, redness and, in some cases, a fever. If your child is too young to tell you that her ear hurts, she might cry a lot and pull on her ear.
Although ear infections can be very painful, they usually go away on their own within a couple of days. When my son was an infant, over a decade ago, doctors tended to prescribe antibiotics for every ear infection. More recently, however, many doctors take a wait-and-see approach, only giving antibiotics if the symptoms aren’t resolving after two days. In the meantime, you can use warm compresses and over-the-counter pain relievers (like Tylenol or Motrin) to keep your child comfortable and reduce his fever. And some kids will receive antibiotics right away, depending on age, the severity of the infection and other health conditions, so it’s still important to have your pediatrician take a look and see if antibiotics are needed. Just don’t be too surprised if you’re sent home without a prescription.
Sometimes kids need ear surgery to place tubes in the ear if they have frequent infections. This is done by an ears, nose and throat specialist. It’s a quick procedure, but it does require general anesthesia, so it’s not something to be done lightly.
A few things that might help prevent ear infections are:
- Holding your baby in a more upright position if you’re bottlefeeding; don’t let him lie down flat on his back while eating.
- Not smoking or allowing your baby to be around secondhand smoke.
- Preventing colds with good handwashing habits and by limiting the amount of time that your baby spends around other children during the cold and flu season, if possible.
- Keeping up with your baby’s vaccination; some prevent against illnesses that can progress into ear infections.
Ear infections are a painful part of life for many babies, so keep that in mind if your little one is congested and seems to be in pain. A quick check by the doctor can ease your mind and, if medication is needed, have your baby feeling better in no time.