What seems like a simple cold for your child can develop into an ear infection, the most common reason for temporary hearing loss in children. Ear infections are also the number one reason parents take their children to the doctor, accounting for more than 30 million visits and $2 billion in treatment costs annually in the United States.
Health professionals estimate three out of four children will have at least one ear infection before the age of three.
Most ear infections occur when the eustachian tube, a small passage that connects the middle ear to the back of the throat, swells and doesn't allow fluid and other ear debris to drain as they normally would. The fluid becomes trapped behind the middle ear, serving as the perfect breeding ground for germs and bacteria to grow.
A swollen ear full of fluid can be painful, especially when it's pushing against the ear drum. Not every cold produces an ear infection, but if the following symptoms are present, too, it might be time to call your doctor.
- Fussiness. Babies fuss for a number of reasons, so consult your family doctor if your child's fussiness is accompanied by any of these additional symptoms.
- Pulling or batting his ears. While this can be a symptom of an ear infection, it isn't an indicator by itself. A fussy baby who tugs at his ears might just be teething. If it's an ear infection, this will most likely be one of several symptoms.
- Complaining of ear pain or hearing loss. Children who are old enough to speak may tell you their ears hurt or that they're having trouble hearing. The good news is your child's hearing will return to normal once the ear infection has run its course.
- Reluctance to lie flat and/or waking up more frequently at night. The infected fluid shifts when your child lies down, causing increased pain. He may feel more comfortable being propped up until the infected fluid can drain.
- Reduced appetite, vomiting or diarrhea. Ear infections make it painful to chew and swallow and may upset the stomach.
- Low grade fever. A low grade fever (99-102) may be a signal your child has developed an ear infection -- especially if he already has a cold or respiratory condition.
- Ear drainage. Trapped fluid in the ear can eventually break the eardrum, resulting in yellowish or even bloody discharge. Once the ear drum bursts, the infected fluid will drain and relieve the pressure. Although this sounds serious, the ear drum will eventually heal by itself.
Most children who are susceptible to ear infections when they are young outgrow the condition. That's because as they grow the eustachian tube elongates and becomes more vertical, allowing fluid to drain more easily from their ears.
If you suspect your child has an ear infection, make an appointment to see your pediatrician. Untreated ear infections can lead to more serious complications, including permanent hearing loss. Depending upon the age of your child and the severity of the infection, your pediatrician may decide to prescribe antibiotics or let the infection run its course.