Ear infection in children

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Emergency department factsheet
Ear infection in children
What is an ear infection?
What are the symptoms?
An ear infection (medically termed otitis media) generally
The first signs of infection are often similar to those of a cold,
refers to an infection of the middle part of the ear, that lies
with a snuffly, blocked or runny nose and mild fever. Your
behind the eardrum.
child may not want to eat or sleep, and is generally irritable.
Sometimes there is a discharge (pus or blood) coming from
the ear.
An older child may complain of an earache, headache or
deafness. A younger child may simply pull at their ear or
be upset. Babies (up to 12 months) can become extremely
irritable, shove fingers in their ears and lose their appetite.
Sometimes the symptoms are very mild and the ear infection
is only picked up when a doctor looks at your child’s ears.
Most infections clear up without treatment and children
feel better in a few days.
Ear infections are common in babies and young children,
especially those aged six to 18 months. Most children will
A small number of children will benefit from antibiotics
have an ear infection before the age of five.
(if there is a bacterial infection). Most courses last five to
ten days, and many children feel better in the first day or two.
Most cases are not serious but they can be very painful
Your child must keep taking the antibiotics until they are all
and distressing.
finished, as bacteria may still be present.
What causes an ear infection?
In many cases antibiotics are not required. Ask your doctor
Ear infections are caused by viruses or bacteria that infect
if they are necessary.
the middle ear.
The doctor may also advise you to use eardrops if there is
In children, the Eustachian tube, which runs from the ear
an infection in the outer ear canal.
to the back of the throat, is short, and more horizontal than
Home care
an adults. It becomes blocked more easily, such as during
a common cold.
You can help your child in several ways.
When the tube becomes blocked, fluid does not drain away
• Offer fluids (water), frequently and in small amounts (‘sips’),
from the middle ear as it normally does. This may cause an
especially if they have a fever.
infection which usually arises from germs found in the nose
• Give pain relief medication if your child is in pain, for
and throat.
example paracetamol (such as Panadol or Dymadon),
Other causes are:
ibuprofen or a paracetamol-codeine mix (such as Painstop).
Carefully check the label for the correct dose and make sure
• an upper respiratory tract infection
you are not giving your child any other products containing
• sudden changes in air pressure (i.e. airline travel)
paracetamol (such as some cough medicines and cold and
• using cotton buds to clean the ears (they push ear wax
flu preparations).
further down the ear canal and may cause a blockage)
• Raise the head of the bed or cot to help drain fluid in the
• smaller than average Eustachian tubes
Eustachian tube (make sure your baby cannot slip under
• swimming in polluted water (called otitis externa,
the covers).
or swimmer’s ear).
• Give your child plenty of rest, with quiet activities at home.
• Your child can pass on any virus that may have caused the
ear infection, so keep them away from childcare or school
until they are better.

Emergency department factsheet
Ear infection in children
• Do not put cotton buds in the ear even if there is pus
Seeking help
or blood. This may damage the eardrum.
• Do not fly with your child until your doctor tells you
In a medical emergency go to the nearest
it is all right to do so.
hospital emergency department or call an
What to expect
ambulance (dial 000).
Most ear infections improve quickly over a few days and
See your local doctor or health care professional
there are no further problems.
if your child:
In some cases, pus will break through the eardrum and
• has a fever
leak from the ear. If this happens, your child will feel better
• still has an earache after 48 hours
as the build-up of pressure has gone. The eardrum usually
• has pus or blood coming from the ear
heals by itself.
• seems hard of hearing after six to eight weeks
Your child should not swim or put their head under water
• seems to be getting worse at any time
until the eardrum has healed.
• you are worried for any other reason.
In some children, ear infections can lead to a build-up of thick
For health advice from a Registered Nurse you
sticky fluid (known as glue ear). There is often little or no pain
can call NURSE-ON-CALL 24 hours a day
with this, but your child may find it difficult to hear because
on 1300 60 60 24 for the cost of a local call
sound does not travel well through fluid. Glue ear will often
from anywhere in Victoria.*
improve by itself, but may take some weeks to do so.
NURSE-ON-CALL provides access to
If you have any concerns about your child’s hearing, see your
interpreting services for callers not confident
local doctor. Hearing loss affects about one in three primary
with English. Call 1300 60 60 24.
school aged children and can lead to learning difficulties and
*Calls from mobile calls may be charged at a higher rate
speech problems. Small children may appear like they are not
paying attention or being naughty.
A referral to a specialist ear, nose and throat (ENT) doctor may
Want to know more?
be needed if hearing loss lasts for more than three months or if • Ask your local doctor or health care professional.
your child has many ear infections. Sometimes small drainage
• Visit the Royal Children’s Hospital website
tubes (called grommets) need to be inserted to drain the fluid
from the ear.
• Visit the Better Health Channel
• Visit the Australian Hearing website
• Avoid contact with cigarette smoke.
• Breastfeed your baby for the first six to 12 months if you are
able to, as it provides more natural immunity to fight infections. Notes:
• Some research suggests limiting the use of dummies in
young children.
• Teach an older child to blow their nose ‘softly’, which helps
to clear fluid from the Eustachian tube.
If you would like to receive this publication in an accessible format,
please phone 9096 8064 or email [email protected]
June 2008. Also available online at www.health.vic.gov.au/edfactsheets
Disclaimer: This health information is for general education purposes only. Please consult
with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you.