In babies and young children sometimes the only sign of an ear infection is a fever. Your child may also:
- be upset, distressed and irritable
- have low energy
- become 'clingy' and 'grizzly' and want to be held, or be with you more
- have problems sleeping, or be harder to settle to sleep
- not be interested in eating.
Middle ear infections
Middle ear infections often develop during, or just after, a cold. Germs from the throat travel up the tube to the middle ear and cause an infection.
Normally the middle ear is full of air, which allows your child to hear. During a middle ear infection, the space fills with fluid and can cause your child's ear drum to bulge, causing pain.
Why do young children get more infections?
Middle ear infections are more common in young children because they have smaller tubes (called Eustachian tubes) that connect the middle ear to the throat. Many children will outgrow ear infections after seven years old, but some children may still have issues as they grow.
Occasionally, the bulging eardrum tears (this is called a burst eardrum), and thick yellow discharge comes out of the ear. Your child may suddenly feel better, as the pressure from the bulging has stopped. A burst eardrum normally heals without treatment.
Outer ear infections
Outer ear infections are usually due to excess moisture in the ear canal, which can occur after swimming, or from damage to the canal (e.g. from scratching).
Signs of an outer ear infection are:
- discharge from the ear
- a feeling of fullness in their ear
- a red and swollen ear - the redness may spread beyond the ear
- painful ear to touch and move
- a fever.
Outer ear infections usually need treatment with antibiotic drops. Talk to your doctor about how long your child will need to avoid swimming.
When to visit the doctor
If you think your child has an ear infection – either middle ear or outer ear – call PlunketLine or take them to a doctor.
Antibiotics aren’t usually needed to treat an ear infection, since the infections are usually viral (antibiotics don’t work on viral infections). Your doctor may wait to see whether the infection will clear up by itself. However, if your child is unwell and feverish, your doctor may recommend antibiotics.
Helping your child at home
- Keep your child home while they are unwell or have a fever.
- Pain relief is important - your doctor or pharmacist can advise you on the right dose of pain relief medicine for your child.
- Let your child rest and give them lots of cuddles.
- Talk to your doctor about a follow-up check, to make sure your child’s ear fluid has cleared.
Ear infections in detail