One of the hardest things about raising a child is that during the early years, it can sometimes be hard to tell what is wrong with a baby. They can cry and scream so you know that something is wrong, but they can’t tell you exactly what is wrong, so it requires some investigation.
If your baby has an ear infection for example, how do you tell what is actually wrong with your child? And once you figure out that’s the reason your baby is upset, what can you do about it? In this article we’ll cover how to recognize an ear infection in babies, what treatments are available, and answer questions like, “Are are ear infections contagious in babies?” This is your beginners guide to ear infection in children.
Identifying the Signs of Ear Infection in Babies
Your baby is unhappy and they are crying. Something is obviously making your child uncomfortable, and you think it may be an ear infection. How can you be sure? Luckily, there are a number of signs when a baby has an ear infection that can be spotted if you are looking for them.
1. Cold and flu-like symptoms
Ear infections can sometimes go hand in hand with a cold. Cold symptoms (everything from chills to vomiting and diarrhea) can sometimes be a sign that there is an ear infection present, or is coming in the near future.
2. Yellowish or whitish fluid from the ear
With some infections, you will notice that there is a liquid discharge from the ear. The fluid tends to be yellow or white in color. This is a sure sign of an infection. It also means that your child has a ruptured eardrum, but do not panic, as the ear drum will repair itself once the infection has been taken care of.
3. Bad smell
Infections can cause a bad odor that will originate from the source area of the infection. If you baby’s ear has a terrible smell coming from it, it is more than likely infected.
4. Tugging at their ear
Even though babies can not speak like we do, they will often do things that can communicate a problem. In the case of an ear infection, a baby may pull, tug, and grab their ear consistently. While babies will do this without having an ear infection, if you start seeing it a lot, you may want to investigate further.
Another possible signal that a baby is suffering from an ear infection is that they are being particularly fussy or irritable, especially when they are trying to sleep. Much like the ear-tugging, this symptom can be a little harder to separate from a child’s normal fussiness, but it is something to keep in mind.
Now that you’ve learned about the symptoms and signs that your baby may have an ear infection, it’s time to cover the causes of the infection itself.
Causes of Ear Infection in Babies
Ear infections with babies and small children are actually a rather common event. They seem to come out of nowhere but can easily be treated. The question is, what are baby ear infection causes? Fortunately, the common causes of ear infections in babies aren’t anything exotic. Some of them even come down to their ears are just small.
1. Immature Eustachian tube
The Eustachian tube in your ear is the passage that connects your ear to your nose and throat. In adults, there is a bit of space for bacteria to travel from the nose to the ear. But in children, the Eustachian tube is small and angular, so there are fewer things to stop bacteria from migrating from the nose and throat to the ear.
2. Colds and flu
In many ways, this goes hand in hand with the immature Eustachian tube. Colds in babies are quite common, and the flu is also something that can occur. With children, the nasal passages can become quite swollen, and mucus can become collected at the back of the nose. Essentially, this can become a breeding ground for all sorts of bacteria that can then migrate from the back of the nose down the Eustachian tube.
3. Fluid build-up
Essentially, the bacteria that travels along the Eustachian tube can migrate from it to the space behind the eardrum. This can cause pus and fluid to build up and press upon the back of the eardrum, causing the baby a large amount of ear pain. When the eardrum ruptures, the excess fluid will begin to come out the ear.
While there may be other causes of ear infections, these tend to be the most common. Ear infections are easy to clear up once diagnosed, and should be done so quickly as to avoid complications.
Complications and Risk Factors of Ear Infection in Babies
While an ear infection can have consequences for an adult, especially if it’s left untreated, for children and babies, the complications and risk factors associated with ear infections are much graver. The fluid build up behind the ear can lead to temporary hearing loss. If left untreated, the damage can cause permanent issues with the child’s hearing, which in turn, can cause issues with their speech. Repeated ear infections can cause cholesteatoma (tissue) to form behind the eardrum that will require surgery.
While very rare, ear infections can also begin to affect the tissue around the spine and brain (meningitis). As you can see, the complications from ear infections can be pretty nasty, especially if you don’t get them treated. Luckily, treatment is pretty easy these days.
Baby Ear Infection Treatment Tips
Once diagnosed, treating ear infections in babies and children is a relatively simple process. The first step in dealing with ear infections is to get a proper diagnosis and treatment plan from your doctor. More than likely, the doctor will prescribe one of the following treatments, depending on the type and severity of the ear infection.
1. Wait and see
If the infection is a mild one, there is a chance that the doctor will prescribe just waiting it out. Ear infections can clear up on their own, especially the type that are created due to a cold. Once the cold clears up, there’s a chance the ear infection will disappear shortly afterwards. If this is the case, the doctor will probably give a recommendation on what to give your child to deal with the pain of the infection. If this method is chosen, you will want to do follow-ups to make sure further treatment isn’t needed.
The doctor may also prescribe a round of antibiotics to help kill the bacteria causing the infection.
However, the best treatment for an ear infection is to try and not get one in the first place. So, are there ways to prevent your child from getting an ear infection?
Preventing Ear Infection in Babies
It’s important to remember that your child will get sick. You can follow every preventative measure in the book and the child could still get sick. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as it will help your child build the antibodies required to fight the infection next time it comes around. But if you want to try and prevent your child from getting an ear infection, there are a number of ways that may help out.
1. Vaccinate your child
Up-to-date vaccinations will help prevent a number of things, including some illnesses that can create ear infections.
2. Breastfeeding (for at least 6 months)
Now, breastfeeding may not be possible for all mothers, nor should it be expected of all mothers. But, if you can breastfeed your child, a study from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention noted that children who were breastfed, were less likely to get ear infections than children that were fed via formula.
3. Keep the nose clear
As we previously pointed out, ear infections can be caused by mucus buildup at the back of the nose. Making sure the nose is clear of that mucus as much as possible is a good way of knocking down the bacteria that can cause ear infections.
There are other preventative measures, but these are the most effective.
Ear Infections Will Happen!
Getting sick is a part of life. We all get sick at one point or another. It’s how we end up increasing resistance to illnesses. Your baby will get sick, and more than likely, your baby will get an ear infection. The important thing is to recognize the infection, get a doctor’s advice, and then treat the ear infection properly.
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Finello, K., “How to Tell If It’s an Ear Infection,” Parents; http://www.parents.com/baby/health/ear-infection/how-to-tell-if-its-an-ear-infection/
“Ear Infections in Children,” Ask Dr. Sears; http://www.askdrsears.com/topics/health-concerns/childhood-illnesses/ear-infections
“Complications of Ear Infections,” WebMD; http://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/ear-infection/tc/complications-of-ear-infections-topic-overview
Klein, J. O. and Pelton, S., “Patient education: Ear infections (otitis media) in children (Beyond the Basics),” UpToDate, March 16, 2016; https://www.uptodate.com/contents/ear-infections-otitis-media-in-children-beyond-the-basics
“Ear Infections,” KidsHealth, August 14, 2015; http://www.kidshealth.org.nz/ear-infections