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What Parents Should Know About Earaches

2 out of 3 children will get at least one earache before their third birthday

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Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare – All Saints

It’s a common childhood complaint: an earache. Ear pain often heralds an ear infection — the leading reason children visit the doctor. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recently updated its guidelines for managing ear infections. Arm yourself with the latest about this frequent child illness.


The ear has three parts: the outer, middle, and inner ear. As you might suspect, the outer ear is everything you can see, plus the ear canal. The middle portion involves hearing; the inner part plays a vital role in balance.


Most ear infections attack the middle ear, specifically, the eustachian tube. It’s a structure that links the middle ear to the back of the nose. It drains fluid from the ear. When bacteria from an illness infect the tube, it swells up and blocks fluid inside. The result: a buildup of pain-producing pressure. Children often develop an ear infection after a cold, the flu, or another respiratory ailment because the eustachian tube becomes swollen causing fluids to accumulate in the middle ear. This fluid becomes a breeding ground for bacteria or viruses and if infected, will often trigger swelling and painful pressure. While an often painful condition, earaches rarely pose a significant health threat and are quite common among kids.


Key signs of earache in small children include pain and pressure, fever, temporary hearing problems, ‘stuffiness’ in the head, and may include some drainage from the ear. Among infants, look for signs of loss of appetite, irritability and crying. Playing or pulling on their ears as a standalone symptom is not a reliable source as kids will play with their ears for other reasons.


Wheaton 6762739 Doctor Ear Exam (2)To diagnose an ear infection, your child’s doctor will use an otoscope — an instrument with a lighted end. He or she will look at the ear drum for bulging or redness. The doctor may also test for fluid in the middle ear.


According to the latest AAP guidelines, treatment may include antibiotics. But your child’s doctor may first suggest waiting two to three days to see if symptoms improve. Ear infections can go away by themselves. Plus, waiting can protect your child from possible medication side effects. It can also limit antibiotic resistance — when bacteria become immune to the healing power of antibiotics.


Your child’s doctor may immediately recommend antibiotics if your child is younger than 6 months or has a severe ear infection. Medications such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help ease pain. Never give your child aspirin, as it has been linked to Reye’s syndrome. Also, applying a warm (not hot) heating pad to the painful ear can offer some relief.


If your child has reoccurring ear infections — more than four in a year — surgery may be best. Ear tubes implanted in the eardrum can help drain fluid from the middle ear.


The AAP counsels against using complementary and alternative medicine treatments for ear infections. These include plants like Echinacea and chamomile. Research on the effectiveness of these approaches is very limited.

Experts say that 75% of children will suffer an ear infection before age 3. To lower your child’s odds, follow these steps:

  • Keep your child up-to-date on vaccines. A yearly flu shot and the pneumococcal vaccine can prevent bacteria responsible for ear infections.
  • Avoid tobacco smoke. Children exposed to it tend to have more ear infections.
  • Put down the bottle. Studies have shown that breastfeeding for at least the first 6 months of a child’s life can lower his or her future chances for ear infections.
  • Teach your child proper hand washing. It can help stop the spread of germs.


Click on picture to learn more about earaches.

Click on picture to learn more about earaches.

For more information on earaches or other questions about your child’s health, call your child’s doctor. If you are looking for a doctor for your child, visit www.mywheaton.org/findadoctor.



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