Middle ear infections (acute otitis media) are one of the most common childhood illnesses. More than 80% of children will have at least one infection by their third birthday, and nearly 100% will have experienced an episode by age five.
Ear infections are most common in the days following other illnesses, such as colds or allergies, which causes swelling or allowed fluid to accumulate in the Eustachian tubes. These tubes, which usually drain away excess fluid from the ear are shorter in children and easily clog. Once occluded, the stagnant fluid serves as a breeding ground for bacteria and leads to the all-too-familiar fever, crying and pain that keep everyone on edge.
Not every doctor will prescribe medications like oral or otic antibiotic drops to treat -otitis media. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics supports restricted use of antibiotics for otitis media—saving medications for the most severe cases.
If antibiotics are prescribed, they can take time to work – leaving children with discomfort in the meantime. Here are some ways you can help manage the pain of an ear infection:
(1) Give children acetaminophen or ibuprofen according to your doctor’s instructions. Avoid cold medications, and never give a child aspirin.
(2) Keep the head elevated. Children two and older can be propped up on a pillow. Children younger than two can rest in their car seat or in a bouncy seat.
(3) Apply a warm moist washcloth to the side of the face near the ear. Take caution to make sure the washcloth isn’t too hot.
Swallowing often will help open the Eustachian tubes and promote drainage. Encourage this practice by giving children 4 and older sugarless gum to chew. Encourage younger children to drink or take a bottle often.
In the event that your child does need antibiotics, make sure to give him or her the entire course—don’t stop just because your child feels better and symptoms are disappearing. Most ear infections will show signs of clearing within two to three days. Children who have persistent ear infections may also be considered for a tympanostomy or ear tube placement. The decision to explore tube placement is unique to each patient and should be discussed with your doctor.