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This topic covers infections of the middle ear, commonly called ear infections. For information on outer ear infections, see the topic Ear Canal Problems (Swimmer's Ear). For information on inner ear infections, see the topic Labyrinthitis.
What is a middle ear infection?
The middle ear is the small part of your ear behind your eardrum. It can get infected when germs from the nose and throat are trapped there.
What causes a middle ear infection?
A small tube connects your ear to your throat. These two tubes are called eustachian tubes (say "yoo-STAY-shee-un"). A cold can cause this tube to swell. When the tube swells enough to become blocked, it can trap fluid inside your ear. This makes it a perfect place for germs to grow and cause an infection.
Ear infections happen mostly to young children, because their tubes are smaller and get blocked more easily.
What are the symptoms?
The main symptom is an earache. It can be mild, or it can hurt a lot. Babies and young children may be fussy. They may pull at their ears and cry. They may have trouble sleeping. They may also have a fever.
You may see thick, yellow fluid coming from their ears. This happens when the infection has caused the eardrum to burst and the fluid flows out. This is not serious and usually makes the pain go away. The eardrum usually heals on its own.
When fluid builds up but does not get infected, children often say that their ears just feel plugged. They may have trouble hearing, but their hearing usually returns to normal after the fluid is gone. It may take weeks for the fluid to drain away.
How is a middle ear infection diagnosed?
Your doctor will talk to you about your child's symptoms. Then he or she will look into your child's ears. A special tool with a light lets the doctor see the eardrum and tell whether there is fluid behind it. This exam is rarely uncomfortable. It bothers some children more than others.
How is it treated?
Most ear infections go away on their own, although antibiotics are recommended for children under the age of 2 and for children at high risk for complications. You can treat your child at home with an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen (such as Tylenol), a warm washcloth or heating pad on the ear, and rest. Do not give aspirin to anyone younger than 20. Your doctor may give you eardrops that can help your child's pain.
Sometimes after an infection, a child cannot hear well for a while. Call your doctor if this lasts for 3 to 4 months. Children need to be able to hear in order to learn how to talk.
Your doctor can give your child antibiotics, but ear infections often get better without them. Talk about this with your doctor. Whether you use them will depend on how old your child is and how bad the infection is.
Minor surgery to put tubes in the ears may help if your child has hearing problems or repeat infections.
Can ear infections be prevented?
There are many ways to help prevent ear infections. Do not smoke. Ear infections happen more often to children who are around cigarette smoke. Even the fumes from tobacco smoke on your hair and clothes can affect them. Hand-washing and having your child immunized can help, too.
Also, make sure your child does not go to sleep while sucking on a bottle. And try to limit the use of group child care.
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