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child getting an ear exam at doctor
February 6, 2023

Tips for Handling Ear Infections

ThedaCare Provider Recommends Seeking Treatment for Common Issue

Helping a child through an ear infection is practically a parental rite of passage. It’s crystal clear when your child isn’t feeling well, but how do you know when your child needs treatment?

“An ear infection can often appear after your child has had a cold, sore throat or other type of respiratory infection,” Dr. Sneha Subbarayan, Pediatrician at ThedaCare Physicians Pediatrics-Neenah. “The middle ear will become inflamed, and it can happen when bacteria from a respiratory infection spreads to the middle ear, or when a secondary infection occurs following a viral illness such as a cold.”

During the ear infection, fluid will build up behind the eardrum, causing symptoms such as pain, Dr. Subbarayan said.

“If your child is experiencing any symptoms of ear infection, especially if they continue for more than 48 hours, it’s important to bring them in for an evaluation,” she said. “An untreated ear infection can leave your child in pain, lead to speech and learning issues, and even lead to permanent hearing loss.”

Symptoms to Watch

Most ear infections will happen when children are very young, with five out of six children experiencing an ear infection before age 3, according to the National Institutes of Health. If your child is too young to tell you what’s wrong, some of the other signs and symptoms to watch for include:

  • Crying and fussiness
  • Tugging at the ear or ears
  • Trouble hearing
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fever, particularly in babies and toddlers
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • Balance problems

During an evaluation, your provider will ask about your child’s health and symptoms, and they will use a small lighted scope to check your child’s ear. If the eardrum is red and bulging, an infection is likely.

“Generally, we will treat ear infections with antibiotics and over-the-counter pain medications or eardrops to help relieve any pain or fever,” Dr. Subbarayan said.

Other tests may be needed to make a definitive diagnosis. On occasion, a child’s ear pain may not be caused by infection and can improve without antibiotics.

“Seeing your medical provider is the only way to determine whether your child needs antibiotics for an infection or if the pain has another potential cause,” Dr. Subbarayan said.

Do not give your child aspirin if they are experiencing fever or flu-like symptoms unless instructed by a doctor as doing so can present a risk for Reye’s syndrome, a rare condition that can cause liver damage and swelling in the brain.

Preventing Recurrence

Parents can help prevent recurrent ear infections by ensuring their children are vaccinated against the flu each year, as well as with the 13-valent pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13).

“Vaccinated children typically develop fewer ear infections,” Dr. Subbarayan said. “This vaccine is recommended strongly, especially if your child goes to daycare and is frequently around many other small children.”

Limiting exposure to some risk factors also can help kids avoid ear infections, she said.

“Encouraging frequent hand-washing, keeping the child away from other sick children, and keeping the child away from people who are smoking can help them avoid ear infections,” Dr. Subbarayan said.

Additionally, not putting babies and children to bed with a bottle, can also help prevent ear infections. Formula, milk and juice can enter eustachian tubes and cause irritation and swelling, and the sugars in the liquids can encourage germ growth.

If your child continues to suffer from ear infections, your physician may recommend a surgical procedure to insert a small, temporary ventilation tube in the eardrum to help prevent fluid from backing up. If this treatment fails, your doctor might recommend removal of the adenoids to keep infection from spreading.

While adults can contract ear infections, they’re far more likely to happen in children. A child’s eustachian tubes, which connect the middle ear to the throat, are smaller and more level, making it harder for fluid to drain from the ear. When those tubes become blocked or swollen, draining becomes harder or impossible.

Patients can get same-day care at ThedaCare Urgent and Walk-In care clinics, as well as at many of primary care clinics. When community members visit ThedaCare.org, they can save a spot at urgent care and see wait times. Urgent care also offers expanded hours. Many sites are open from 7:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m., and they have weekend and holiday hours. Scheduling through MyThedaCare allows people to see the availability of a provider, as well as that of others on their care team, and those at nearby clinics.

“Ear infections are never fun – for adults or for children,” said Dr. Subbarayan said. “Seeing a provider is the best plan for taking care of ear infections before they become more problematic. And we want to help people get back to feeling their best as quickly as possible.”

About ThedaCare

For more than 110 years, ThedaCare® has been committed to improving the health and well-being of the communities it serves in Northeast and Central Wisconsin. The organization delivers care to more than 600,000 residents in 17 counties and employs approximately 7,000 health care professionals. ThedaCare has 180 points of care, including eight hospitals. As an organization committed to being a leader in Population Health, team members are dedicated to empowering people to live their unique, best lives. ThedaCare also partners with communities to understand needs, finding solutions together, and encouraging health awareness and action. ThedaCare is the first in Wisconsin to be a Mayo Clinic Care Network Member, giving specialists the ability to consult with Mayo Clinic experts on a patient’s care. ThedaCare is a not-for-profit health system with a level II trauma center, comprehensive cancer treatment, stroke and cardiac programs, as well as primary care.

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