Ear infections are one of the most common reasons parents take their children to the doctor. The most common type of ear infection is called otitis media. It is caused by swelling and infection of the middle ear. The middle ear is located just behind the eardrum.
An acute ear infection starts over a short period and is painful. Ear infections that last a long time or come and go are called chronic ear infections.
The eustachian tube runs from the middle of each ear to the back of the throat. Normally, this tube drains fluid that is made in the middle ear. If this tube gets blocked, fluid can build up. This can lead to infection.
Anything that causes the eustachian tubes to become swollen or blocked makes more fluid build up in the middle ear behind the eardrum. Some causes are:
Ear infections are also more likely in children who spend a lot of time drinking from a sippy cup or bottle while lying on their back. Getting water in the ears will not cause an acute ear infection, unless the eardrum has a hole in it.
Acute ear infections most often occur in the winter. You cannot catch an ear infection from someone else. But a cold that spreads among children may cause some of them to get ear infections.
Risk factors for acute ear infections include:
In infants, often the main sign of an ear infection is acting irritable or crying that cannot be soothed. Many infants and children with an acute ear infection have a fever or trouble sleeping. Tugging on the ear is not always a sign that the child has an ear infection.
Symptoms of an acute ear infection in older children or adults include:
The ear infection may start shortly after a cold. Sudden drainage of yellow or green fluid from the ear may mean the eardrum has ruptured.
All acute ear infections involve fluid behind the eardrum. At home, you can use an electronic ear monitor to check for this fluid. You can buy this device at a drugstore. You still need to see a health care provider to confirm an ear infection.
The provider will look inside the ears using an instrument called an otoscope. This may show:
The provider might recommend a hearing test if the person has a history of ear infections.
Some ear infections clear on their own without antibiotics. Often, treating the pain and allowing the body time to heal itself is all that is needed:
All children younger than 6 months with a fever or symptoms of an ear infection should see a provider. Children who are older than 6 months may be watched at home if they DO NOT have:
If there is no improvement or if symptoms get worse, schedule an appointment with the provider to determine whether antibiotics are needed.
A virus or bacteria can cause ear infections. Antibiotics will not help an infection that is caused by a virus. Most providers don't prescribe antibiotics for every ear infection. However, all children younger than 6 months with an ear infection are treated with antibiotics.
Your provider is more likely to prescribe antibiotics if your child:
If antibiotics are prescribed, it is important to take them every day and to take all of the medicine. DO NOT stop the medicine when symptoms go away. If the antibiotics do not seem to be working within 48 to 72 hours, contact your provider. You may need to switch to a different antibiotic.
Side effects of antibiotics may include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although rare, serious allergic reactions may also occur.
Some children have repeat ear infections that seem to go away between episodes. They may receive a smaller, daily dose of antibiotics to prevent new infections.
If an infection does not go away with the usual medical treatment, or if a child has many ear infections over a short period of time, the provider may recommend ear tubes:
If the adenoids are enlarged, removing them with surgery may be considered if ear infections continue to occur. Removing tonsils does not seem to help prevent ear infections.
Most often, an ear infection is a minor problem that gets better. Ear infections can be treated, but they may occur again in the future.
Most children will have slight short-term hearing loss during and right after an ear infection. This is due to fluid in the ear. Fluid can stay behind the eardrum for weeks or even months after the infection has cleared.
Speech or language delay is uncommon. It may occur in a child who has lasting hearing loss from many repeated ear infections.
In rare cases, a more serious infection may develop, such as
Call your child's provider if:
Let the provider know right away if a child younger than 6 months has a fever, even if the child doesn't have other symptoms.
You can reduce your child's risk of ear infections with the following measures:
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, Brenda Conaway, Editorial Director, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.