What You Should Know About Ear Infections

Do your kids get ear infections? What are they, and what can be done about them? Find out more about this common condition now.

May 31, 2017 | HF Healthy Living Team

Ear infections cause inflammation (redness, swelling) in the ear, which can be very painful. Ear infections can happen at any life stage, but they are more common in childhood. In fact, five out of six children will get an ear infection before turning three years old.

Learn more about the different types of ear infections, signs your child’s ears might be infected, and how ear infections are treated.

Types of Ear Infections

To understand how ear infections can happen, it’s helpful to understand the three main parts of the ear: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear.

The outer ear is everything you see on the outside, plus the opening of the ear all the way to the eardrum, called the ear canal. The middle ear is between the eardrum and the inner ear. The inner ear helps us keep our balance, and also contains the cochlea, which converts sound vibrations into signals that go to the brain.

This is what it looks like:

Human Ear Anatomy
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Ear infections are caused by bacteria, and sometimes start after your child has had another illness, like a cold or the flu. There are three types of ear infections:

  • Acute otitis media (AOM), the most common. In this type, the middle ear becomes infected and fluid is trapped behind the eardrum.
  • Otitis media with effusion (OME). In this type, the trapped fluid stays, even though the majority of the ear infection has cleared.
  • Chronic otitis media with effusion (COME). In this type, trapped fluid stays in the middle ear for a long time, or comes back repeatedly. This type of infection can affect the hearing.

Your child may have an ear infection if he or she shows the following behaviors or signs:

  • Complaints of ear pain
  • Temperature of 102.2° F or higher
  • Blood, pus, or fluid coming from the ear or ears
  • Irritability or crying
  • Trouble with hearing, sleep, or balance
  • Pulling at, tugging, or rubbing the ear or ears

Treatment for Ear Infections

If you think your child might have an ear infection, take your child to his or her provider right away. The provider will use a special instrument to check inside your child’s ears to determine the infection type and whether antibiotics are needed. If the provider prescribes antibiotics, be sure to have your child take them exactly as prescribed and to finish the full course of treatment.

Some types of ear infections do not respond to antibiotics. In those cases, there are some things that can be done to make your child more comfortable as they get through the infection, including taking age-appropriate, over-the-counter medicines. Talk to the provider about what’s best for your child.

Child Ear Infection
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Preventing Ear Infections

Although it may not be possible to avoid ear infections entirely, there are some steps you and your child can take to better protect yourselves.

  • If you smoke, stop. Exposure to secondhand smoke increases the risk of ear infections.
  • Make sure you and your child have the vaccines you need to stay healthy.
  • Avoid other illnesses, like colds, by teaching your child to wash his or her hands frequently.
  • If you bottle-feed your baby, make sure he or she is in an upright position. Never give your baby a bottle if he or she is lying down, as this increases the risk of ear infections.

Even if your child is feeling fine, he or she should get regular checkups. While you’re there, be sure to ask the provider these questions.


© 2017 HF Management Services, LLC

Healthfirst is the brand name used for products and services provided by one or more of the Healthfirst group of affiliated companies.

This health information or program is for educational purposes only and not intended to treat, diagnose, or act as a substitute for medical advice from your provider. Consult your healthcare provider and always follow your healthcare provider’s instructions.

“Ear Infections in Children,” National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. February 13, 2017.

“Ear Infection (Middle Ear),” Mayo Clinic. Accessed March 30, 2017.

“Ear Infection,” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Accessed March 30, 2017.

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