How to Identify if Your Baby or Child Has an Ear Infection

doctor examining baby’s ear

Story at-a-glance -

  • Ear infections are the most common illness among preschoolers and younger children in the U.S.
  • Ear infections also affect children more because their immune systems are still developing, so they have more difficulty in combating infections
  • Learn the several signs of ear infections that may appear in babies, toddlers or children

It can be hard to accept, but some infections still target young children even if parents exhaust all means to prevent them from happening. Ear infections are a good example. Numbers have shown that at least 5 out of 6 children may have been affected with otitis media or middle ear infections by the time they turn 3 years old.1

Ear infections are the most common illness among preschoolers and younger children in the U.S. According to a study by Harvard University and University of California, Los Angeles researchers, children diagnosed with ear infections have two extra doctor's visits, 0.2 times more emergency room visits and 1.6 times more prescription medicines compared to children without the infection.

This means an extra $314 is spent per affected child annually, alongside around an additional $17 for medicines. All in all, this amounts to an annual $2.88 billion health care cost for ear infections in the U.S.2 The only caveat about this study is that it only focused on middle ear infections and didn't shed light on the impacts of other ear infections or surgical procedures — meaning the costs can increase significantly.

Why Are Infants and Toddlers More Prone to Ear Infections?

One reason why infants and toddlers are more likely to have an ear infection can be traced to the development of the Eustachian tubes, which connect the throat to middle ear.3 These tubes are smaller and more level among children than in adults, making it difficult for fluid to drain out of the ear, even under normal circumstances. Plus, if the tubes end up swollen or blocked by mucus because of a cold or other respiratory illness, fluid in the ear may fail to drain.

Ear infections also affect children more because their immune systems are still developing, so they have more difficulty in combating infections. The adenoids, which are part of the immune system, often respond to bacteria passing through the nose and the mouth. In some cases, however, the bacteria become trapped in the adenoids. This triggers a chronic infection that may move toward the Eustachian tubes and the middle ear, and ultimately cause an infection.4

Common Symptoms of Ear Infections in Kids

There are several signs of ear infections that may appear in babies, toddlers or children. According to Baby Center, a change in mood, such as becoming fussy or crying more than usual, can be an indicator of an infection.

Another big clue that a baby may have an ear infection is a fever, or even a cold or sinus infection, since ear infections often occur with these illnesses. Other potential symptoms of ear infections among these groups of people include:5

Pulling, grabbing or tugging of ears — Babies who do this aim to communicate that they are experiencing pain. However, take note that some babies pull ears for other reasons too (not necessarily a sickness), so if they look and act fine, they probably don't have an ear infection.

Diarrhea or vomiting — The substance responsible for an ear infection may affect the gastrointestinal tract and trigger diarrhea or vomiting.

Reduced appetite — A gastrointestinal upset that occurs because of an ear infection may cause appetite loss and pain while swallowing and chewing. Babies with ear infections may pull away from their mother's breast or the bottle after the first few sips.

Presence of yellow or white fluid draining from the ear — While this doesn't occur in most babies, this is a known ear infection symptom. The appearance of fluid can also indicate that a small hole has appeared in the eardrum, which may be healed once the infection is addressed.

Unpleasant smell — A foul odor coming from the child's ear may be a sign of infection.

Sleeping difficulties — In some cases, lying down may increase pain caused by an ear infection.

The U.K.'s NHS Choices also notes that some babies with ear infections may not react to certain sounds or may frequently lose their balance.6 If you want to know how to prevent ear infections in babies and children, you can consult a doctor or follow any of these preventive measures.

MORE ABOUT EAR INFECTION

Ear Infection: An Introduction

What Is an Ear Infection?

Ear Infection Symptoms

Ear Infection Causes

Types of Ear Infection

Ear Infection in Babies and Children

Are Ear Infections Contagious?

Ear Infection Treatment

Essential Oils for Ear Infection

Ear Infection Prevention

Ear Infection FAQ

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