Ear infections are the most common reason parents take their child to a doctor. In fact, data shows that 5 out of 6 children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday, making childhood ear pain a common issue for families.
With that, doctors say it's crucial for parents to be aware of some basics around childhood ear infections. "Though they have been around forever, guidelines on how to treat them, especially in babies and younger children, have changed over the years," Dr. Anjuli Gans, a pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, tells Yahoo Life. "Understanding the causes, symptoms and treatment options can empower parents to know exactly what to do every step of the way for their own children."
Why do childhood ear infections happen?
There are a few reasons why childhood ear infections happen, Dr. Danelle Fisher, a pediatrician and chair of pediatrics at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., tells Yahoo Life. "Ear infections usually happen in kids who are sick," she says. "It's not as common to see a super-healthy kid with an ear infection." (The exception, she says, is swimmer's ear, although that tends to be more common in older children.)
Anatomy doesn't help, Gans adds. "We all have eustachian tubes that connect our noses and throats to the middle ear," she says. In young kids, the eustachian tubes are smaller and flatter than those of adults, "which allows viruses or bacteria to get in more easily," Gans explains. Kids also have bigger adenoids — which are tonsil-like structures — in the back of their nose and throat. This, she says, "can prevent eustachian tubes from clearing out germs."
Symptoms of childhood ear infections
These infections can be tough to spot in younger children. "Because ear infections often affect infants and young children, they may not be able to point directly to their ears or tell their parents that their ears hurt," Dr. Michael S. Cohen, director of the Multidisciplinary Pediatric Hearing Loss Clinic at Mass Eye and Ear, tells Yahoo Life. That's why he recommends looking out for these symptoms in children:
Infants and young children may also pull on their ears or stick their fingers in their ears if they have an ear infection, Fisher says.
Childhood ear infection treatments
It's important to see your child's pediatrician if you suspect that they have an ear infection, Fisher says. There, they can be appropriately diagnosed and treated.
"Most acute ear infections are treated with oral antibiotics," Cohen says. "Additionally, symptoms can be treated with pain-relieving medications such as Tylenol or ibuprofen, as well as good hydration and supportive care."
If you find that your child is having a lot of ear infections, it's important to flag it to their doctor, if they haven't talked to you about it already. "Current guidelines suggest referral to a specialist after three infections within a six-month period, or four infections within a year," Cohen says. "Also, children with ear infections that fail to respond to multiple courses of antibiotics or last for more than three weeks should be considered for referral to a specialist."
What happens from there will vary, but doctors will often recommend that you consider having tubes put in your child's ears. "This can help prevent future ear infections by equalizing the pressure," Fisher says.
Getting tubes in your child's ears involves a surgical procedure that places a small ventilation tube in the eardrum to improve airflow and prevent fluid backup in the middle ear, per the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Most tubes stay in place for six to nine months until they fall out, the organization says.
Are ear infections contagious?
The infections themselves aren't contagious, Fisher says. "Usually it's the viral incident that caused it that's contagious," she says. Meaning, if your child's ear infection was caused by a cold, RSV, the flu or something similar, you could get that illness — but not the ear infection — from them.
Research and advances
Currently there is no vaccine to prevent ear infections. However, the NIDCD recommends getting children vaccinated against the flu, as well as seeking out the PCV13 vaccine, which protects against types of infection-causing bacteria that can contribute to ear infections.
Researchers in Australia are working on a new vaccine to help prevent ear infections in kids, although it's unlikely to be ready anytime soon. "It would be more challenging to develop one individual vaccine for all ear infections," Gans says. "Ear infections can have many causes and depend on a complex constellation of genetics, personal medical history, exposure and anatomy."
Doctors are also exploring what happens in the ears of kids who have recurring ear infections, the NIDCD says. They have identified colonies of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, called biofilms, that are present in the middle ears of most children with chronic ear infections and are now working to understand how to attack and kill those biofilms.
What's the takeaway?
Children usually outgrow ear infections with age, Cohen says. "As children grow, eustachian tube function generally improves and therefore most kids do begin to outgrow ear infections at 2 to 3 years of age," he says.
Fisher is hopeful that children will have more options in the future. "Our goal is to have no ear infections, ever — they're miserable and not fun," she says. "We don't want kids to suffer."