Dr. Joan Thode Answers Parents’ Questions About Ear Infections

doctor looking into a child's ear

Can My Child Catch An Ear Infection?

Ear infections, like sinusitis, are considered "secondary infections." They are not infections you can catch from another person.

What Causes An Ear Infection?

Contrary to some popular beliefs, ear infections are not caused by a backup of nasal mucous into the ear (the nose and ear aren’t directly connected). It’s all about blocked ear fluid. When the immune system fights a virus, the nasal passages and throat become inflamed. Inner ear fluid typically drains into the throat, but when inflammation occurs, the exit tract of the inner ear fluid swells shut. The fluid is stuck in a warm place until the inflammation goes away, offering the perfect breeding ground for the bacteria that normally live in the ear. Those bacteria multiply, creating an infection.

Why Are Young Children More Susceptible to Ear Infections?

The small size of children’s skulls makes ear drainage harder than in older children and adults, which is why ear infections are more common for younger kids. Increased fluid in the inner ear can push on the inner side of the ear drum, making it bulge out and cause pain. When the immune system responds and sends defender cells to kill the infection, those cells take up additional space, pushing the ear drum more and causing more pain.

What Is The Best Way to Treat My Child’s Ear Infection?

Ear infections normally get better on their own as your child’s immune system fights the infection. The main goal is to control the pain with acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Motrin, Advil) and allow the immune system to do its job. Be sure to measure medication with a syringe (not a cup) and keep in mind babies younger than 6 months of age should not take ibuprofen.

There are some cases when antibiotics for ear infections are indicated, so it's important to discuss treatment options with your child's doctor.

When Should I Bring My Child to the Doctor?

When ear pain becomes bothersome to your child and you are concerned, it’s time to see a health care provider. There isn’t a need to wait.

When Should I Consider Ear Tubes?

Your doctor may recommend ear tubes–placed in the ear drum by an ENT (ear/nose/throat) doctor—if your child experiences frequent ear infections. The tubes provide an exit for the accumulating fluid into the outer ear. If the ear fluid cannot accumulate, the bacteria cannot infect it. This can drastically cut down on the number of ear infections.

Can Ear Infections Be Prevented?

Unfortunately, there isn’t a way to prevent ear infections (other than ear tubes, which are reserved for kids with recurrent infections). We do not suggest pre-emptive ear drops or drainage techniques in the outer ear, since these do not affect the inner ear and can cause irritation to the outer ear canal. Fortunately, as your child grows and their skull becomes larger, their ears drain more efficiently and they normally experience fewer ear infections.

author name

Joan B. Thode, MD

Joan B. Thode, MD, FAAP, is a pediatrician with LG Health Physicians Roseville Pediatrics.

Education: Undergraduate—Franklin & Marshall College; Medical School—George Washington University School of Medicine and Health Sciences, Residency—NYU Langone Medical Center.

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