Treating & Preventing Ear Infections in Your Children

New Media Producer: Brad Maglinger

Seven-month-old Abigail Phelps doesn't make it easy for the doctor to check her ears. She's just getting over an infection.

"What we usually see is an eardrum that pops out at you," says Dr. Tim Corba. "It can be red, it can be dull. It's not that clear eardrum that we like to see."

When the tiny tube that drains the middle ear becomes infected, it swells shut and traps fluid inside. Bacteria grow in the fluid, infecting the middle ear and triggering the production of thick pus. The pus presses on the eardrum, creating intense pain.

"The worst thing that we see and one of the most common things that we see in children with recurrent ear infections or one that is prolonged is a delay in their speech or delay in their hearing because they have the fluid behind the eardrum," Dr. Corba says.

To lessen this fluid, doctors can insert a tiny tube in the eardrum. The tube allows air to get in and excess fluid to get out, reducing the chance of infection. In time, the tube falls out on its own.

But most kids don't need tubes, just a course of antibiotics. If they catch a bug that's resistant to amoxicillan, they'll need stronger medication.

Ear infections can't be prevented entirely, but researchers are finding that some kids are more prone than others, especially if, "they're chronically exposed to smoke," says Dr. Corba. "Their parents smoke. Infants and toddlers who are on pacifiers, that is a risk factor. Children in daycare is another risk factor."

Fever, pulling on the ear, loss of hearing, irritability and not eating or sleeping well are all signs of an ear infection. The quicker you get baby to the doctor, the quicker she'll be smiling again.

Children in daycare are more likely to pick up bacteria that cause ear infections, researchers are sure of that. But they're not sure why babies who use pacifiers are more prone, or why boys seem to get more infections than girls.