Ear infections are a common ailment in children; about 75 percent of kids will experience at least one by age 3. Some ear infections require treatment, others clear up on their own.

“Ear infections are one of the most common reasons that children come to their doctor’s office,” says Dr. Pilar Bradshaw.

What causes an ear infection?
An ear infection (called otitis media) often develops following a sore throat, cold or other upper respiratory infection. If the upper respiratory infection is bacterial, the bacteria may spread to the middle ear. If the upper respiratory infection is caused by a virus, such as a cold, bacteria may move into the middle ear as a secondary infection. In both type of cases, fluid builds up behind the eardrum.

For ear infections that are caused by a virus, antibiotics are not an effective treatment, and prescribing them can lead to antibiotic resistance. If the infection is bacterial, antibiotics are warranted.

“In general, we consider antibiotics as a treatment for babies who are under 6 months old, children who are in a great deal of pain and kids with a high fever. When there is high fever with an ear infection, we think it’s more likely to be bacterial in nature and needs to be treated,” Dr. Bradshaw says.

Easing the symptoms of an ear infection
To help relieve your child’s discomfort:

  • Keep your child hydrated.
  • Apply warm compresses on the ear if your child will tolerate it.
  • Avoid using decongestants; they can worsen the infection by hardening the buildup of fluid and making it more difficult to drain.
  • To help relieve pain, babies under 6 months old can be given acetaminophen. Children over six months old can be given acetaminophen or ibuprofen.

Dr. Bradshaw also advises parents to never put anything in your child’s ear to ease their symptoms, including ear drops, unless specified by a doctor.

“If there’s a rupture in the eardrum, you could make things worse,” she says. “Your doctor has the correct training and tools to look into your child’s ears, assess the situation and advise the best treatment.”

Your child should start feeling better within a few days after visiting the doctor. Be sure to make another visit if an ear infection gets worse, lasts more than three days or if your child’s symptoms change.

How are chronic ear infections treated?
If your child gets recurrent infections, your pediatrician may recommend inserting ear tubes. Ear tube placement surgery is the most common elective surgery in children in the United States. Ear tubes are tiny cylinders placed through the eardrum that allow fluid to drain from the middle ear and promote air flow.

If your child is experiencing many ear infections, your pediatrician may refer you to a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist to discuss ear tubes.

What is swimmer’s ear?
Swimmer’s ear (also known as otitis externa) is an infection of the outer ear canal. Symptoms of swimmer’s ear usually appear within a few days of swimming and include:

  • Itchiness inside the ear
  • Redness and swelling of the ear
  • Pain when the infected ear is tugged or when pressure is placed on the ear
  • Pus draining from the infected ear

Swimmer’s ear is not the same as the common childhood middle ear infection. If you can wiggle the outer ear without pain or discomfort, then the ear condition is probably not swimmer’s ear.

To learn more about ear infections in children, click here.