What Causes Ear Infections?

Ear infections occur when fluid fills the space between the eardrum and the inner ear, called the middle ear. This happens when the Eustachian tube, connecting the middle ear to the back of the throat, becomes blocked due to a virus or bacterium. A clogged Eustachian tube prevents the mucus and pus from draining out of the middle ear, adding pressure on the eardrum and causing pain and discomfort. 

Children are especially susceptible to ear infections thanks in large part to anatomy. The structure of their Eustachian tubes, which are still developing, makes them prone to swelling and blockages. Children who attend daycare or school and those who are exposed to tobacco smoke are most at risk. 

What Are the Symptoms of an Ear Infection?

The first sign of an ear infection may be an increase in irritability. Some children cry inconsolably. You may notice your child pulling or tugging on the ear. In addition to a painful earache that is worse when lying down, symptoms of ear infection include fluid discharge from the affected ear, a feeling of fullness in the ear, difficulty hearing, trouble sleeping, headache, fever, dizziness, vomiting, diarrhea, and a lack of appetite.  

An ear infection is easily diagnosed through an examination of your child’s ears with an otoscope. If the ears appear dull or red, contain fluid behind the eardrum or pus inside the middle ear, then an ear infection is likely to blame. A hearing test may be recommended, especially if your child has had ear infections in the past.

How Are Ear Infections Treated?

Many doctors prefer to take a wait-and-see approach when it comes to treating ear infections, especially with younger children. They often clear up on their own without the need for antibiotics or other aggressive forms of medical treatment.  

Pain can be managed with medications like Tylenol or Motrin (be sure to avoid giving your child aspirin, which has been linked to a dangerous condition known as Reye’s syndrome) or eardrops. Use a warm washcloth pressed to the ear for comforting relief.  

If the ear infection doesn’t go away on its own and is the result of a bacterial infection, antibiotics will be prescribed. 

If ear infections become a recurring issue, pressure equalization (PE) tubes may be surgically placed into the eardrum by an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist to help drain the middle ear fluid. PE tubes are commonly placed among children with a history of recurrent ear infections and typically come out on its own within 1 year. After the PE tube comes out, the eardrum heals shut on its own. 

How Do Ear Infections Affect My Child’s Learning?

Middle ear fluid can act as an earplug as sound travels along the auditory pathway, resulting in temporary hearing loss. This type of hearing loss is called conductive hearing loss. A child with conductive hearing loss will struggle to hear as sounds will be muffled and at softer levels. The child may also become inattentive, begin talking louder, repeatedly ask “what?”, and/or set the TV louder than usual. Conductive hearing losses are critical in early childhood, as they may cause a delay in speech and language development.

Doctor examining woman's ear
Child getting ear infection treated