a parent using an ear thermometer to check for baby ear infection symptoms
A fever can be a symptom of an ear infection in babies.

Baby Ear Infection Symptoms

Ear infections (medical name: otitis media) are very common in children between six months and three years of age. Though usually non-serious, ear infections can be uncomfortable for your baby and may lead to complications if they fail to clear up on their own. If your baby has an ear infection, it’s important that you are able to recognize the symptoms quickly, so you can monitor their condition and take them to see a doctor if need be.

What Are Baby Ear Infection Symptoms?

How can you tell if your baby has an ear infection? In babies and infants, an ear infection may be indicated by the rapid development of some or all of the following symptoms and behaviors:

  • Ear pain that may be worse when lying down
  • Excessive crying, irritability or general "fussiness"
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Tugging, pulling or pawing at ears
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Headache
  • Fever
  • Dizziness or loss of balance
  • Loss of appetite
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhea
  • Fluid or pus draining from the affected ear(s)

Potential Complications of Ear Infections in Babies

Most of the time, ear infections in babies are not serious and don’t cause any lasting problems. Very rarely, recurrent ear infections can lead to complications such as:

  • Loss of hearing
  • Problems with speech and developmental delays (as a result of impaired hearing resulting from recurrent infections)
  • Damage to the inner ear
  • Further infection

When Should You Take Your Baby to See a Doctor?

Usually, ear infections in babies and infants clear up by themselves after a few days and don’t require antibiotics to treat. However, if your child is unwell and you think they may have an ear infection, you should take them to see a doctor if:

  • They are younger than six months old
  • They have had symptoms for more than a day
  • They are in severe pain
  • You notice fluid or pus draining from one or both ears

To diagnose an ear infection, your doctor will examine your baby’s eardrum. If your child is under two years of age and the infection is bacterial, your doctor may prescribe antibiotics. However, if the infection is viral, it will not be treatable with antibiotics. Your doctor may also hold off on prescribing antibiotics if the infection is mild and/or your child is over two years of age, as ear infections often clear up by themselves after a few days.

If your doctor chooses not to prescribe antibiotics, they will usually re-examine your baby after a few days to make sure the infection is gone. In the meantime, you can make your little one more comfortable by giving them pain relief medications such as acetaminophen (paracetamol), ibuprofen or aspirin. These will treat both pain and fever (if applicable), allowing your baby to rest and recover. The dosing of these medications depends on the age and weight of your child, so be sure to follow the advice of your doctor when administering them.

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What Causes Ear Infections in Babies?

Ear infections are caused by bacteria or viruses that find their way into the middle ear, usually after your child has a cold or sore throat. The infection leads to a build-up of fluid behind the eardrum, which causes the pain and other symptoms associated with ear infections.

Young children are more likely to get ear infections than adults for a few different reasons. Firstly, their immune systems are less developed, making children more susceptible to bacterial and viral infections. The small passageways that connect the throat to the middle ear (the Eustachian tubes) are also smaller in children and, therefore, more likely to get blocked by mucus in the event of respiratory infection.

Can You Prevent Ear Infections in Babies?

Almost 75% of children have at least one ear infection by the time they reach the age of three. Like chickenpox, it’s a harmless rite of passage for most young children and there’s little you can do to prevent it. However, studies have identified several risk factors for ear infections in babies and infants, some of which you can alleviate:

  • Babies are most susceptible. Due to the reasons mentioned above, children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years old are most susceptible to ear infections.
  • Smoke and air pollution. Poor air quality caused by air pollution and tobacco smoke has found to increase the likelihood of ear infections in babies. Keep a smoke-free home to reduce the risk.
  • Feeding style. Babies who are bottle-fed are more likely to get ear infections than those who are breast-fed, especially if they are fed while lying down. If you bottle-feed, do so with your baby in an upright position to reduce their risk of ear infection.
  • Allergen exposure. Children with pollen allergies are more susceptible to ear infections when pollen counts are high. This is because the allergic response often leads to a build-up of mucus in the Eustachian tubes.
  • Seasonal factors. Ear infections are most common in fall and winter, when colds and other respiratory infections are more prevalent.
  • Conclusion

    Babies are very susceptible to ear infections, with up to 75% of children getting at least one by the time they reach their third birthday. Ear infections are, in the vast majority of cases, non-serious and easily treatable with mild painkillers. Most infections clear up by themselves within a few days, and antibiotics are rarely necessary.

    However, you should take your child to see a doctor if they exhibit baby ear infection symptoms for longer than a day, are in severe pain, are younger than six months old or if you see fluid draining from the affected ear(s).