When an infant or young child becomes fussier, cries more than usual, and has trouble sleeping, they may be suffering from a health issue or illness. In addition to the behaviors mentioned above, a fever, clumsiness, balance issues, and difficulties listening and responding to quiet sounds can indicate an ear infection.

Most children may experience an ear infection before they can speak. Ear infections are more common in children than adults, with an estimated five out of six children having an ear infection by the time they reach their third birthday. The most common sign of an ear infection, especially in children who can’t speak, is pulling or tugging at the ears. If you suspect your child or has an ear infection, follow the tips listed below for information regarding why ear infections occur, how to treat them, and the next steps to take after identifying an infection.

What is an ear infection?

The occurrence of an ear infection—scientifically referred to as otitis media (OM)—means inflammation in the middle ear. Ear infections are typically the result of bacteria that happens when there is a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum. An ear infection most commonly occurs following a cold, sore throat, or upper respiratory infection. The bacteria in bacterial upper respiratory infections can spread to the middle ear. If the upper respiratory infection occurs because of a virus or cold, the microbe-friendly environment may attract bacteria, moving it into the middle ear as a secondary infection.

The most commonly occurring ear infection is acute otitis media (AOM), comprised of an infected and swollen middle ear and trapped fluid behind the eardrum. Such issues with the middle ear can cause pain, which people typically refer to as an earache.

Following an ear infection, someone may experience otitis media with effusion (OME). OME can occur after an ear infection subsides and fluid remains trapped behind the eardrum. While there are typically no symptoms of OME, the fluid behind the eardrum will be noticeable with the professional use of a particular instrument.

Furthermore, chronic otitis media with effusion (COME) occurs when fluid has a prolonged stay in the middle ear or repeatedly returns, even when there is no infection. COME is problematic because it can make it more difficult for children to combat new infections and impact their hearing.

Common Ear Infection Signs and Symptoms

Ear pain is a common telltale sign and symptom of ear infections. Some children and adults who suffer from an ear infection may have a fever and experience difficulties sleeping, eating, and drinking. Lying down, chewing, and sucking can result in painful pressure changes to the middle ear.

An ear infection most commonly occurs following a cold, sore throat, or upper respiratory infection. The bacteria in bacterial upper respiratory infections can spread to the middle ear. If the upper respiratory infection occurs because of a virus or cold, the microbe-friendly environment may attract bacteria, moving it into the middle ear as a secondary infection.

Treatment for Ear Infections

People who suspect their child has an ear infection should consider consulting an audiologist, ear, nose, and throat doctor (ENT), hearing specialist, or other hearing professional. A doctor typically asks questions regarding your child’s health, administers a hearing test, and makes a diagnosis as they are able.

One diagnostic test used by doctors is tympanometry, which uses air pressure and sound tones. A tympanometer—a little, soft plug with a small microphone and speaker—measures the eardrum’s flexibility at different air pressures. Doctors may resort to tympanometry when the diagnosis is unclear.

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After making a diagnosis, doctors may prescribe an antibiotic such as amoxicillin. Children and adults who receive an antibiotic prescription must take their medication exactly as prescribed and adhere to a trusted professional’s advice.

To access a trusted hearing doctor for kids, consult a trustworthy, reliable audiologist company such as Hearing Health USA. This company—the largest group of hearing care clinics in the United States—provides adults and children with high-quality hearing tests, hearing aids, pediatric audiology care, and more hearing health solutions.