A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

How to recognize, treat ear infections in kids

Ear infection chart - recognize childhood ear infectionsWith cold and flu season comes another common childhood ailment – ear infections.

Ear infections often follow upper respiratory tract infections, which are infections of the nose and throat.

The eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the throat, doesn’t work as well when you’re sick. Bacteria can collect in the middle ear and cause an ear infection, said Dr. Laurie Peterson, a Marshfield Clinic pediatric urgent care physician.

Telltale symptoms usually signal an ear infection, but a health care provider will check for a bulging eardrum to make the decision, she said.

Recognize and treat ear infections

Seeing the doctor is your best bet for younger children and older kids who have certain symptoms.

“A child with chronic or recurring ear infections may have decreased ability to hear,” Peterson said. “Ear infections while the child is learning language can delay speech if the child isn’t hearing well.”

A severe, untreated ear infection can lead to a ruptured eardrum and/or balance problems.

Minor ear infection symptoms sometimes can be treated and watched at home. Check for worsening symptoms daily if you don’t bring your child to the doctor right away.

This chart will help you decide how to handle your child’s ear infection symptoms.


How to recognize & treat
Watch for symptoms during and after a child has a cold or the flu.
  • Ear pain
  • Pulling on ears
  • Irritability
  • Fussiness
  • Fever
  • Decreased appetite
  • Problems or pain swallowing
  • Decreased activity/energy
  • Vomiting and diarrhea (in infants)
See a doctor if:
  • Child is 24 months or younger
    OR SHOWS ANY of these symptoms:
  • Fever above 100.4 F
  • A lot of pain
  • Complaining of pain in both ears
Don't need to see a doctor if:
  • Child is older than 24 months
    AND MEETS ALL of these criteria:
  • Not a lot of pain
  • Temperature below 100.4 F
  • Otherwise healthy
Treat pain and fever with:
  • Ibuprofen
  • Acetaminophen
Watch for:
  • Signs of more pain
  • Ear infection spreading to other ear
  • High fever
Never hesitate to call your child's health care provider if you are uncertain or if symptoms persist.

Reduce the risk of an ear infection

Ear infections don’t have to be a fact of life for every child. Here are three things you can do to reduce your child’s chances of getting ear infections.

  • Pneumococcal vaccine. The vaccine has reduced cases of pneumococcal disease, which is a common cause of ear infections.
  • Stop smoking. Kids exposed to secondhand smoke are more likely to get ear infections.
  • Breastfeed. Babies breastfed for at least a year are less likely to ear infections, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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