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Earache in Children

What You Should Know

Earaches are very common in children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years. They stem from an infection in the ear called otitis (o-TIE-tis) media (me-DEE-uh). Most children have at least one ear infection before their eighth birthday.


Ear infections often follow a cold, but cannot be spread from person to person. Some ear infections are caused by allergies.

Signs / Symptoms

Tugging of the ears and fever are signs of an ear infection. The child may cry more and seem fussier than normal. Simply touching the ears may cause pain. Swallowing, chewing, and nose blowing can increase ear pain. The pain is caused by pressure changes inside the ear. Older children may say their ears feel like they are under water. They may hear buzzing or ringing. Their speech may be unclear if they are just beginning to talk, because they can't hear clearly. Ear infections can cause short-term hearing loss. The child may not hear far-away noises. A child's eardrum can break if too much pressure builds up behind it. Signs of a broken eardrum are blood and pus draining from the ear. This drainage does not mean that the infection has gotten worse. The small break will heal on its own in a few days. However, the child could have a slight hearing loss until the infection is gone. Hearing usually returns to normal after treatment. If it does not fully return, a hearing test may be needed. If your child has frequent ear infections, your doctor may suggest putting tubes in the ears. The tubes let liquid drain from the ears and can help prevent additional infections.


The doctor will use an otoscope (OH-toe-skope) to look in the ears for infection. A tympanogram (tim-PAN-uh-gram) is another test that may be done. It involves inserting an ear plug to see how the eardrum moves. The doctor will prescribe an antibiotic. Use the entire prescription, even if the child feels better after the first few days. You'll need to bring the child back to the doctor after finishing the medicine, usually in 2 to 3 weeks. The ears will be checked to see if the infection is gone. Sometimes more medicine is needed.

What You Should Do

  • A heating pad set on low, or a warm water bottle placed on the ear, may ease the pain. You may also put a covered ice bag over the ear to relieve pain.
  • Do not put anything in the child's ear unless suggested by your doctor.
  • The child can swim if the eardrum is not broken. If there is no fever, the child can return to school.

Call Your Doctor if ...

  • The child does not feel better in a few hours.
  • The child has a temperature.
  • The child continues to cry, is fussy, and not as active as usual.
  • The child starts vomiting or has diarrhea.
  • The child has a skin rash.
  • The child develops new problems that may be due to the medicine.

Seek Care Immediately if ...

  • The child has a high temperature.
  • The child is crying, fussy, and tugging at the ears after taking the medicine for 48 hours.
  • The child has swelling around the ear.
  • The child seems to have pain or stiffness when moving the neck or complains of neck pain.
  • The child is vomiting, less active, and more sleepy than usual.
  • You feel the child is getting worse.

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