When your child has an earache, he or she may:
- Pull at the ear,
- Cry or be irritable,
- Have ear drainage,
- Have some loss of hearing,
- Possibly have a fever.
What causes an earache?
Common causes of earache include different types of infection, injury, or pressure. Middle ear infections are especially common in children 2 years of age and younger and are often seen during or after a cold. This is the result of infection developing behind the eardrum where fluid may have accumulated during the cold. Outer ear infections (swimmer's ear), though painful, are quite different in that it is the skin lining the ear canal that becomes infected and painful. This typically happens during the summer with older kids who have been swimming, thus the term "swimmer's ear."
Pain from injury to the ear canal or eardrum can occur in a number of ways depending on age and circumstance. It's not unusual to see an injury from a cotton swab or from a small toy along with an assortment of other foreign objects a toddler might find irresistible. Pressure from impacted wax or changes in air pressure can also produce pain.
Sometimes children will say their ear hurts when in fact, the pain is actually radiating from another location. We call this referred pain. This can be caused by sore throats; tooth, gum or teething pain; pain of the scalp, neck or sinuses.
How is it treated?
Suspected middle ear infections should be evaluated by your doctor. Ear pain itself can be treated with an appropriate dose of acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Antibiotics are usually reserved for kids under 6 months of age when symptoms won't improve or when accompanied by high fever or other significant signs of illness.
Outer ear infections are usually treated with antibiotic drops and modified swimming activities. There are various drying techniques that can be used to help prevent these types of ear infections as well.
Impacted wax or foreign body removal is generally best handled by your physician.
How can I help my child?
For middle ear infections, follow your doctor's instructions for care and follow up. To help relieve pain, you may:
- Give your child acetaminophen or ibuprofen,
- Put a cold pack or wet cloth on the ear for 15 - 20 minutes,
- Put a warm moist cloth over the ear.
To keep wax from impacting, remember to never put things like cotton swabs into the ear canal.
To help with pressure such as that which may occur with air travel, have the older child attempt to blow out while pinching the nose and keeping the mouth closed. You can help prevent this problem with a baby by nursing or bottle feeding while the plane is climbing or descending. Swallowing helps equalize air pressure.
When should I call my doctor?
- Your child is crying uncontrollably,
- Your child suddenly has problems hearing,
- Your child has fever with the earache,
- You know or suspect there is a foreign object in the ear,
- You know or suspect there was trauma to the ear.
This page was authored by Dr. Lauren Mitchell.