Ear Infections in Children: What to Look For


Ear infections are extremely common in babies and children because of their shorter and more horizontal Eustachian tubes. These tubes are more likely to allow bacteria and viruses to find their way into the middle ear. They’re also narrower in children and therefore more likely to become blocked.

According to the National Institutes of Health, 5 out of 6 children will experience at least one ear infection by their third birthday. However, most occur before they’ve learned to speak. For this reason, it’s important to understand the signs of ear infection in children so you can easily identify the problem and help them get the correct treatment.

Signs of ear infection in children

Childhood ear infections happen when there is inflammation in the middle ear, the part of the ear that connects to the back of the nose and throat. The most common type of middle ear infection is called otitis media, which is an inflammation or infection caused by a cold, sore throat or respiratory infection. When your child can’t tell you their ear hurts, here are signs that may suggest an ear infection:

  • Pulling or tugging at the ear
  • Crying or irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fever, especially in younger children
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Loss of balance
  • Difficulty hearing or responding to your voice

If your child is experiencing a high fever, severe pain or bloody or pus-like discharge from the ear, seek immediate medical attention to avoid further complications like hearing loss.

What causes ear infections in children

Middle ear infections are often caused by a problem in the Eustachian tube. These tubes help equalize the pressure between the outer and middle ear. When these tubes are not working correctly, it prevents the normal drainage of middle ear fluids toward the back of the nose and throat. This blockage can encourage the growth of bacteria and viruses inside the ear. A malformation of the Eustachian tube can also lead to an increased risk of ear infections in children.

How to prevent ear infections in babies and children

Although many ear infections cannot be prevented, here are a few things you can do to lessen your baby’s risk:

  • Breastfeeding
    The antibodies found in breastmilk can protect your baby from ear infections and several other medical conditions. If possible, try breastfeeding for the first 6-12 months.
  • Avoiding secondhand smoke
    Exposure to smoke can make ear infections more severe and frequent, so it’s important to protect your baby from exposure to secondhand smoke.
  • Maintaining proper bottle position
    If you bottle feed your baby, hold them in a semi-upright position to keep the formula or breastmilk from flowing into the Eustachian tubes.
  • Getting all doctor-recommended vaccinations
    Ensure your baby’s immunizations are up to date, including flu shots (for 6 months and older) and pneumococcal vaccines.

Treatment options for childhood ear infections

Ear infections in newborns are typically not cause for concern and can often be treated safely at home with acetaminophen, warm compresses and increased hydration. Families can also try elevating the baby’s crib slightly at the head during naps and bedtime to promote drainage. However, you should not place a pillow directly under your baby’s head. Instead, place one or two pillows or a rolled-up towel under the mattress.

Uncomplicated ear infections for children between 6 months and 2 years typically require antibiotics for 10 days. Older children typically need antibiotics for 5 days. To help alleviate pain associated with an ear infection, your doctor may also recommend over-the-counter pain relievers like Ibuprofen or acetaminophen for children aged 2 and older.

Visit State Urgent Care to get relief from the painful symptoms of an ear infection. We’re open for walk-in appointments 7 days a week, 8 a.m. – 7 p.m.