Help Your Baby Recover Fast With These Treatment Tips
So you're worried you may be dealing with a baby ear infection…
Has your baby been crying more than usual lately? And she is too young to tell you what's wrong?
Maybe you're having a really difficult time putting her to bed. Or maybe there's a telltale sign that this is more than the usual fussiness.
Is she running a fever? Or is there any fluid building up around her ear?
Some of these problems may mean that she has an ear infection. But some may not. To understand what's going on, you need an accurate assessment and a plan of attack. Preferably sooner rather than later - otherwise you won't be getting much sleep either.
Just don't get too worried. Even if it is a baby ear infection, these are very common. Three out of four children will have an ear infection at some point. In fact, nearly 30 million doctor visits in the U.S. every year are related to this exact problem.
If it looks like your child will be one of these this year, or even if you try at-home treatments, you should familiarize yourself with the basics. What is a baby ear infection? How long will it last? And what can you expect?
Sometimes these clear up on their own. Other times, you may need to seek the help of your family doctor or a pediatrician. Either way, you do want to know what to look for.
Your baby will thank you!
Know The Signs
Detecting the symptoms of a baby ear infection can sometimes be a little tricky with young children. You have to know what to look for in order to treat them properly.
As adults, we can diagnose our own ear infections fairly easily. Symptoms can include ear pain, a “stuffed up” feeling, sensitivity to touch or pressure, or dampened hearing.
If the pain is located in just one ear, this is often a sign of infection as well. Ear infections can frequently become recurring nuisances, sometimes affecting one ear more than the other.
Arriving at a diagnosis with a baby can be a little more of a challenge. Babies and young children might be cranky, but they can't tell you why if they have not yet developed the ability to speak.
That means we have to play detective, and look at other signs in order to figure out what is going on.
The baby may have developed a few of the following symptoms. While a few of them are not proof of an ear infection, any of these things can be clues.
The Nine Symptoms of an Ear Infection
Observe and see if you notice any of the following:
Your Child Is Irritable or Fussy
This could suggest any number of problems. If your child is unusually fussy, it doesn't necessarily mean that an ear infection is the culprit. But it is often one of the first things to happen, as the most painful part of the ear infection happens early on in the process. So the child may be acting up without knowing what exactly is wrong.
Your Child Is Crying More
Ear infections can come on strong. When the pain kicks in, the first 24 hours can often be the worst, and that may cause the child to cry, especially for pre-verbal children who can't express what's wrong. Because an ear infection is a constant source of pain, the child may also feel frustrated at not being able to solve the problem. Crying while trying to fall asleep is often a telltale sign.
Your Child Is Sticking a Finger in the Ear
Ok, this is something that kids just do anyway, at any time. But if it seems like your child is doing it repeatedly, it may be a signal that the child is thinking “it feels like there's something in my ear.” If it looks like your child is trying to get something out, it may be a suggestion that what they're actually sensing is a buildup of fluid.
Your Child Has Difficulty Sleeping
This is a common one. The pain and pressure can often be more serious at night. There's nothing to distract the child from the pain, and this can lead to fussiness when the child is unable to sleep.
Your Child Doesn't Want to Lie Down
The change from sitting upright to lying down can also be a problem. If there is a buildup in the middle ear, it may feel different or more painful when the child is put to bed. Additionally, if the child's sense of balance has been affected, this may be an issue when it changes position..
Your Child Keeps Losing Balance
Our inner ear provides us with a sense of balance. If the middle ear becomes clogged with an infection, the buildup prevents the inner ear from doing its job effectively. This is more noticeable in older children or adults, but if your child is suddenly having trouble balancing, it may be due to ear infection (especially if you see this in combination with other symptoms.)
Your Child Has Fluid Draining from the Ear
One way to be pretty sure that this is a baby ear infection as opposed to something else. If there is a yellow or greenish fluid coming from the ear, it's a sign that the baby's body is fighting an infection, and it is draining this way. It may also indicate that the baby may have a punctured ear drum (which we will talk more about later) and should see a doctor.
Your Child Seems to Have Difficulty Hearing You
If the baby is having trouble hearing you, it may also indicate that a blockage is not just interfering with balance, but with hearing as well. This may affect one ear or both. Temporarily muffled hearing is very common with ear infections, but it is almost never a permanent or long-term effect.
Your Child Has Recently Had a Cold
This is another big one to watch out for. An ear infection often accompanies another infection, cold, or illness. So if your child exhibits some of the signs of being sick (like fever, vomiting, or diarrhea) it is possible that they are connected. The ear infection is very possibly a result of congestion that has resulted from the cold.
The Danger Of Ear Pressure Buildup
Sometimes the fluid builds up in the middle ear and has nowhere to go. If the pressure becomes bad enough, it can rupture the eardrum, which will lead to a drainage of fluid (usually yellow or green.)
While this can be pretty unsettling, a ruptured ear drum is not the end of the world. It typically will allow the fluid to drain and then heal on its own, usually in a few weeks. So it is not the same thing as your baby having permanent hearing damage! It will mean that you should see a doctor, though, to make sure it heals properly.
If a ruptured ear drum should occur, here are the most significant usual side-effects to watch out for:
As stated, this usually heals by itself. In very rare cases, the eardrum might have trouble healing on its own. If there is a rupture, especially if this happens in a very young child, it's a good idea to have your family doctor take a look so that they can monitor it properly.
What Is An Ear Infection, Exactly?
When people talk about a “baby ear infection,” they are usually referring to a middle ear infection. You may also encounter the medical term otitis media in connection with this.
An untreated middle ear infection can lead to problems involving the inner ear, especially if it spreads. Even if the infection does not spread, the inner ear can lose some of its effectiveness. So infections of the inner ear can also occasionally happen, but they are not as common.
Middle ear infections, meanwhile, are very normal. About three out of four children will get them at some point, and although they can be a hassle, they are rarely something to worry about purely by themselves.
Still, you will want to understand what is going on, both for your own peace of mind, and in order to diagnose your child properly.
Typically, an infection of the middle ear happens when the eustachian tube becomes blocked. The eustachian tube is what connects the nose, throat, and ear. It regulates pressure so that each of these organs can function properly, and it helps us maintain balance.
Unfortunately, the tube does occasionally become blocked. When this happens, bacterial or viral infection can become trapped. Usually, the body would fight the infection and clear it out before it was noticeable.
But because of the blockage, the body cannot fight or drain the infection as quickly as it normally might. This then leads to a buildup of fluid.
Babies and young children have smaller heads and narrower eustachian tubes, which are still developing. That means it is easier for them to become stopped up.
If the problem becomes chronic or severe, a doctor may recommend the child get surgery on these tubes so that they might drain better (this is only in the most extreme cases).
What Causes A Middle Ear Infection?
While the blockage of the eustachian tube is usually what leads to infection, there is no one single thing that always causes the blockage. A few factors can contribute more than others, so here are the common causes which might ultimately turn into a baby ear infection:
The Eustachian Tube Is Too Narrow
This is part of why babies under a year old are the most commonly affected. The head, nose, throat, and ears are still developing.
The walls of the eustachian tube are often very soft, so they can become restricted as the result of swelling elsewhere in the body. In addition, the tube is narrower than it usually is in adults, increasing the likelihood of a blockage.
A Recent Cold Blocked the Tube
Because the eustachian tube is connected to the nose and throat as well as the ear, a cold can lead to congestion from one organ affecting the others. In fact, if you have to deal with recurring baby ear infections, this could very well be the reason.
The Baby's Allergies are Flaring Up
An allergic reaction will sometimes cause the eustachian tube to become restricted. With the passageway closed, an ear infection can take root before the allergic reaction has had a chance to subside.
Sinus Disease Has Triggered a Blockage
Some babies have recurring sinus problems. Babies who have a lot of sinus infections are at greater risk for ear infections. Sinus infections cause swelling that can then cause the eustachian tube to get blocked, and the ear can also get an infection as a result.
There Is a Family History of Ear Infections
There is a genetic component as well. Given that genes affect the physical structure of the eustachian tube (and also factors governing the immune system), parents who have frequent infections may pass that heightened risk on to their children.
Adenoid Problems Have Triggered a Blockage
The adenoids are glands in the mouth that can become enlarged if your baby is sick. The inflammation may cause them to push the eustachian tubes closed. Some children suffer more than others from adenoid problems. If you notice that your child frequently breathes through her mouth when she sleeps, this could be a cause as well.
Don't blame yourself if your child has gotten an infection! Many of these causes are not things you can entirely avoid. Although we will talk about some preventative measures, the important thing now is to take care of your baby and make sure it doesn't get any worse…
The Dangers Of Not Treating A Baby Ear Infection
If a baby ear infection is especially bad and is not treated, it could become worse, and ultimately lead to some hearing loss. This is rare, and the risk can be lowered by calling a doctor if the baby's pain persists (don't wait for too long!)
In the long term, there is a slim possibility that the infection could spread to other areas, and lead to other issues such as mastoiditis (the infection of the mastoid bone).
If you research this topic elsewhere, you may also see that Merniere's disease is mentioned as a side effect. This can happen in children but it is very rare. It is much more likely to happen for ear infections that affect adults.
The usual recommendation is to treat the pain the baby is experiencing. If the symptoms seem especially severe, or do not start to improve after two or three days, then it may be necessary to take the child to your family doctor or pediatrician.
How Should You Treat The Infection?
First of all, it's important to know that baby ear infections are problems that the baby's immune system is designed to handle. So although it may take a little while, most of them clear up on their own.
They typically are temporary nuisances and heal without causing any damage to the child's hearing or general well-being.
It might take a week or two for the infection and blockage to go away completely. But the worst pain and fussiness will typically only last for a few days.
Can You Do At-Home Treatments?
The short answer is yes, for the first couple of days. Obviously, if the child is in terrible pain, or if she is running a high fever, you should call a doctor. But most infections will subside, so the main objective of treatment is simply to help the child feel better and lessen pain and discomfort.
But if an infection doesn't show any signs of improvement within 48 hours, you will want to seek medical advice.
In the meantime, here are a few ways you can help your baby get through the next couple of days:
Try a Warm Towel for 10-15 Minutes
Place a warm, wet towel on the side of the child's head, near the affected ear. Do not use anything too hot, especially on a younger child or baby under a year old. Heating pads are often too hot and not safe for younger children.
Use Tylenol to Fight the Pain
Only do this if the child is older than six months, and follow all the direction on the medication. Acetaminophen can help reduce swelling as well as pain. You want to make sure not to overdo it, though.
Keep Your Child Hydrated!
Get your child plenty of fluids. If the child is old enough to carry its own drink, make sure their cup is always full, and also encourage them to drink extra (if you're dealing with a baby, you will have to take care of this yourself.)
It may seem counter-intuitive because the problem is a buildup of fluids. But dehydration can slow the drainage of the fluids that are causing the backup.
Drinking regular amounts of water will help your child fight the infection, especially if she has had a cold recently. Drinking water also causes the child to swallow frequently, which opens the eustachian tube for a bit and promotes draining of the backup.
How Do You Put The Baby To Sleep?
During a baby ear infection, the child will almost certainly have trouble sleeping for at least a couple nights. This will improve as the pain subsides, but the initial evenings, they may need you to help calm them so that they are able to relax.
Medicine Can Aid Sleep As Well
Some forms of acetaminophen help to relax and cause babies to fall asleep more easily. As always, check the labels and dosage carefully, especially with small children.
Hold Your Baby
If your baby is having an especially difficult time falling asleep after being laid into a crib, it may be because she is uncomfortable being laid on her back. Try holding your baby, or rocking her to sleep, and then lay the baby in the crib.
Skip the Glass of Milk
Some people suggest that a glass of milk helps put us to sleep. But in this case, you'll want to avoid adding any extra dairy products to a child's diet. Dairy products can frequently increase the amount of mucus and congestion that someone produces (and that's the opposite of what you want in this case.)
Infection Or Teething?
Sometimes, a child will actually be experiencing a round of baby teething, instead of a baby ear infection. The symptoms frequently look the same (fussiness, holding the cheek or side of the face, difficulty eating.)
This is especially common in young children between four months and two years old. Some babies start teething as early as their second month, so these can be confused.
If they are experiencing any symptoms of sickness, however, it may be the infection after all. Liquid in the ear and cold symptoms will usually accompany the infection rather than teething.
Should I Call The Doctor?
If you think your baby's infection is getting worse, it may be time to see a doctor. Check to see if any of these are happening:
A doctor will assess how much the baby needs in fighting the infection.
Antibiotics are not always necessary, although the doctor may prescribe some. What is also common is attempting to treat the symptoms while the baby heals naturally.
Pain medication is quite common. This won't make the infection go away, but it will make it easier for the baby to relax and sleep, which will help the healing process.
Ask the doctor if you should come in for a follow-up after a month, to see if the ear has finished draining completely.
It's Happening Again!
Sometimes, the child may experience multiple ear infections in a short amount of time. Especially if it's cold and flu season. Doctors see a spike in visits during the fall and winter for baby ear infection worries.
It may be the cause of otitis media with effusion, which is a buildup of fluid without an infection causing it. This can occur if the passageway is especially narrow.
If you find this happens three or more times in the space of a few months, you should talk to a specialist…
Time To Get Tubes?
If this buildup is happening again and again with your child, an ENT (Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist) may need to examine the child.
One thing the ENT may recommend is a routine surgical procedure to help solve this problem. The procedure is called a myringotomy.
A myringotomy sounds a lot scarier than it actually is. It's a fairly simple operation, and can make a big difference to your child if he or she suffers from frequent buildups. Hundreds of thousands of children (who are usually between one and three years old) will get them over the course of a year.
The myringotomy allows the surgeon to drain the fluid in a controlled fashion. Then a tiny tube called a tympanostomy tube is placed inside the ear to stop the middle ear from filling up again.
The tubes usually stay in for about a year. They keep the middle ear ventilated. They don't prevent baby ear infections, but they stay in place and provide air flow. That way, even if there is another buildup, it won't be as painful.
How Do I Decrease the Chance of Another Infection?
Although you can't stop them entirely, there are some steps you can take.
Avoid Exposure to Colds
Wash your hands and teach your children to cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze.
Breast-Feed Child Aged 6-12 Months
During breastfeeding, antibodies from the mother helps bolster the baby's immune system. This will make the baby better at fighting colds to begin with.
Vaccinate Your Child
Talk to your doctor to see if there are any other vaccinations you may need to get.
Avoid Second-Hand Smoke
Babies can have especially strong reactions to second-hand smoke. If you or someone near the baby smokes, limit their exposure as much as you can!
The Top 3 Things To Remember
These are the basic things you should keep in mind.
- Baby ear infections are common, and almost never cause significant or permanent damage.
- Use the home treatment tips, but see a doctor if the condition has not improved after 48 hours, or if the baby is running a fever over 102.2 degrees.
- Talk to a specialist if the problem continues to resurface regularly.
What Not To Do
Don't Ignore It!
Even if you don't wind up seeing a doctor, continue to monitor the situation. Some baby ear infections will get better after a few days, but will take a few weeks to completely go away.
Don't Skip Vaccines!
These will help prevent many infections and sicknesses that can trigger them.
Don't Take the Child Swimming!
Water getting in the ear can be very unpleasant for a child with an ear infection. If taking your baby or child swimming is part of your routine, consider postponing it until the problem has passed.
And the one thing you should NEVER do?
Don't Ever Try to Clean Out the Baby Ear Infection By Yourself!
Some parents try to clean out the baby's ear with a Q-Tip or something similar. They think that this will get rid of the gunk that causes the infection. This might seem like a good idea, but it's very easy to rupture the ear drum accidentally in the process.
Baby, You Got This
Great job! Maybe there were a couple of nights where you wish you'd gotten a little extra sleep, but you did everything to help solve the challenge of a baby ear infection.
And if this problem shows up again, you'll know exactly what to do. Well done!