Did you know that ear infections are the second most common illness among children? (The common cold is the first.) In fact, three out of four kids will have experienced at least one ear infection by the time they reach age 3. With the cold weather upon us, all parents should take time to learn the causes, symptoms, and treatments of baby ear infections.
An ear infection – the medical term is “acute otitis media” (AOM) – is the inflammation and infection of the middle ear. Ear infections in babies typically first develop between 4 and 6 months, after your baby has had a cold or an upper-respiratory infection.
Causes of Ear Infections in Babies
Fluid from the cold or flu can build up in the area behind your baby’s eardrum, causing this area to become infected. In a healthy baby, any fluid that enters this area is drained through the Eustachian tube – which connects the middle ear to the back of the throat, behind the nose.
Unfortunately, when your baby has a cold, sinus infection, or allergies, the Eustachian tube can get blocked and trap fluid in the normally air-filled middle ear. Bacteria and viruses that have entered into the middle ear via the Eustachian tube can also get trapped.
All of these germs can breed bacteria, which leads to ear infections. Germs love growing in dark, warm, and moist places, so a middle ear that’s filled with fluid is absolutely heaven to these germs and bacteria. As the infection gets worse, the inflammation that’s in and behind the eardrum does, too.
The result – pain (and a baby who is constantly pulling at his or her ears). Babies with ear infections can also develop a fever, as their body tries to fight the infection. Unfortunately, babies are vulnerable to ear infections. Due to their young age, babies’ Eustachian tubes are short – only about half an inch horizontal. As your baby gets older, his or her Eustachian tubes will triple in length and become vertical – which makes it easier for fluid to drain.
The short length of the Eustachian tubes and the fact that babies’ immune systems are still developing puts them at higher risk of ear infections, and it also makes it harder for them to fight off an ear infection.
Signs of a Baby Ear Infection
Because babies can’t talk and tell you exactly what’s wrong, you have to pay special attention to their behavior. The easiest way to tell whether or not your baby has an ear infection is a change in his mood or behavior. When something is wrong, babies are typically fussier than normal, and they cry more than usual.
If your baby develops a fever – no matter if it’s a high fever or a slight one – this is another huge clue that he may have a baby ear infection. If your baby is just getting over a cold or sinus infection, you should pay attention to any of the following ear infection symptoms and signs:
- Your baby is pulling, grabbing, or tugging at his or her ears more than usual.
- He or she starts having diarrhea. Sometimes the same bug that causes ear infections can also mess up your baby’s gastrointestinal tract.
- A reduced appetite is another sign. Ear infections can make it painful for your little one to swallow and chew. If you notice that your infant pulls away from your breast or rejects his or her bottle after only a few sips, this is also a clue.
- A yellow or whitish fluid drains from your baby’s ear. This is a sure sign of an infection and signals that a small hole has opened in your baby’s eardrum.
- Your baby’s ear is smelly.
When to Call the Pediatrician
You should call your baby’s pediatrician at the first sign of an ear infection. Though most ear infections usually clear up on its own without treatment, you can never be too careful when it comes to your infant. You want to err on the side of caution rather than risk your baby’s health. Sometimes, an untreated or severe baby ear infection can cause your baby’s eardrum to rupture. While this doesn’t happen often, you should still play it safe and call the doctor.
Doctors typically treat ear infections with antibiotics. Your pediatrician may also recommend that you give your baby children’s Tylenol or children’s Advil to help relieve the pain.