Symptoms and Prevention of an Ear Infection

By Stephanie Watson and Temma Ehrenfeld @temmaehrenfeld
December 04, 2023
Symptoms and Prevention of an Ear Infection

Learn how to prevent your child’s everyday cold from turning into a more serious illness and how you can recognize the symptoms of an ear infection.

If you’re a parent, prepare your stockpile of tissues and non-aspirin pain relievers. Your child will probably get a cold this year.

In fact, your child will probably catch several colds. Kids under age 6 get up to eight colds a year.

Most colds are harmless, but about one of every children develops an ear infection, a bigger worry.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: When Your Baby Has a Stuffy Nose


Skip cold medicines

You might be tempted to give your child a decongestant, antihistamine, or a multi-symptom combo remedy, but it’s best to steer clear. There is no evidence such medicines help and plenty of research showing side effects, sometimes dangerous ones. That’s true even if the product is labeled for use in children.

Symptoms of ear infection

Symptoms of an ear infection may look like other health problems. Your child's doctor can tell very quickly if her cold has turned into an ear infection and provide the proper treatment.

While symptoms can be different in any child, they generally include:

  • Ear pain
  • The child tugging or pulling at the ear
  • Fussiness, irritability, crankiness
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Fever
  • Fluid draining from the child's ear
  • Difficulty hearing

The problem with ear infections

Bacteria or a virus may cause a middle ear infection.

Viruses that populate the nose and mouth during a cold can sometimes attract bacteria. Once bacteria start multiplying, they can spread to the middle ear, causing mucus and other fluid to build up behind the eardrum, leading to an ear infection.

Kids are more vulnerable to bacterial ear infections than adults because their eustachian tube, which drains fluid out of the ear, is shorter. Some kids develop one ear infection after another, or chronic otitis media.

Ear infections may cause discomfort and keep your kid out of school, but repeated ear infections lead to more serious complications.

They can damage children’s hearing, sometimes permanently, and cause speech or developmental delays. Rarely, an ear infection will spread to nearby tissues or even to the brain.

How to prevent ear infections

“Because we now know that the common cold is the precursor to an ear infection, it is important for parents to make extra efforts to prevent their children from catching colds,” says Tasnee Chonmaitree, MD, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the University of Texas in Galveston.

That’s easier said than done in children, whose questionable cleanliness habits and multiple social interactions make them highly efficient germ spreaders.

Chonmaitree recommends keeping kids away from anyone who is sick and avoiding day care.

Kids in day care tend to get more colds — and therefore more ear infections — than children cared for at home, simply because they’re exposed to more germs.

Once they reach elementary school, however, they catch fewer colds than their peers, possibly because earlier exposure helps them build an immune defense against the virus.

It’s not realistic for every parent to avoid putting their child in day care, but Chonmaitree recommends choosing one with fewer children.

Another effective way to avoid colds is to wash your child's hands with warm water and soap, or use an alcohol-based sanitizer throughout the day to clean off any germs that do collect. Using antibacterial soap is essentially useless and could lead to bacterial resistance.

Make sure your child is current on recommended vaccinations. Immunizations can prevent illnesses like the flu, which also cause ear infections.

Never smoke around your children. In addition to increasing your child’s risk for asthma, bronchitis, and pneumonia, secondhand smoke can contribute to ear infections.

Can you skip antibiotics?

The number one reason pediatricians prescribe antibiotics is for ear infections. If your doctor suggests one, it’s a good idea to ask follow-up questions. About 30 percent of the prescriptions Americans get when they see a doctor outside a hospital are unnecessary or won’t help.

Antibiotics have no effect on viruses. Even if your child has a bacterial ear infection, a drug may do more harm than good.

Most kids who don’t have a fever or severe symptoms will recover on their own. In the long run, they may do better when parents let their bodies learn to fight germs.

Antibiotics can disrupt the balance of bacteria in your child’s gut, which can increase your child’s vulnerability to future infections.

Overuse of antibiotics, for example, has led to more cases of C. Diff, which produces serious diarrhea. Overuse also is a public health problem, promoting dangerous antibiotic-resistant “superbugs.”

The bottom line is that skipping antibiotics, if possible, is healthier for your child.

If you do give your child antibiotics, never use one you happen to have in your medicine cabinet. Make sure you use an antibiotic prescribed for a specific problem and follow instructions.


YOU MIGHT ALSO LIKE: How to Prevent Antibiotic Resistance


December 04, 2023

Reviewed By:  

Janet O’Dell, RN