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Babies, Kids and Ear Infections: Top 5 Questions Answered

Ear infections, or otitis media, are caused by viruses or bacteria behind the eardrum and are very common in babies and little kids, so it’s helpful for parents to know the signs and when to seek treatment. Rachel Dawkins, M.D., a pediatrician and medical director of the Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine Clinics at Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, answers the top 5 most commonly asked questions she receives in the clinic.

What are common symptoms of ear infections?

  • Fever
  • Fussiness (in babies, especially when lying down)
  • Ear pain (common complaint of older kids)

Kids are more prone to ear infections than adults because of the anatomy of their inner ears, but you cannot see an ear infection just by looking at it. If the ear canal looks red or inflamed, this could be otitis externa (swimmer’s ear).

Does my baby have an ear infection if he/she is pulling at his/her ears?

Likely not. Developmentally, babies find their ears around four months old and children often play with or tug at their ears. It can be very soothing, especially if a child is teething or trying to fall asleep.

What is the best treatment for an ear infection?

Most ear infections do not require treatment as many are caused by a virus which will resolve on its own. Studies have shown that the majority of ear infections will clear on their own in 10 days without treatment. If your child is in pain, a pain reliever like acetaminophen or ibuprofen might help, and dosing depends on your child’s age and weight. For severe or recurrent ear infections, your pediatrician may prescribe antibiotics.

How do I reduce my child’s risk of getting an ear infection?

There are quite a few things parents can do to decrease risk for ear infections:

  • Avoid secondhand smoke exposure
  • Keep your infant’s vaccines up-to-date
  • Breastfeed your baby
  • Wash hands frequently

What is the best way to clean my baby’s ears and get rid of earwax?

Ear wax is normal! Just like some adults have oily skin and some have dry, some children are wax producers and some are not. Wax is not harmful for the most part. A good rule of thumb is “Never put something smaller than your elbow in your ear.” Cotton swabs can push the wax further back in the ear, scratch the ear canal and poke a hole in the eardrum. A safer option is to use the corner of a washcloth to clean the outside of the ear.

For more pediatric health topics, visit HopkinsAllChildrens.org/Newsroom. You also can download our free Pocket Doc app, which features a symptom checker, parenting advice and other tools for staying in touch with us.


About the Author: Rachel Dawkins, M.D., is medical director of the Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine Clinics in the Johns Hopkins All Children’s Department of Pediatric Medicine, seeing patients as a pediatrician in St. Petersburg, Florida. She also is an assistant professor of pediatrics in the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. Dr. Dawkins is active nationally with the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Board of Pediatrics. Her research and teaching interests are in childhood resilience, advocacy, resident education and obesity. She earned her medical degree at the University of Miami. She completed her residency at Louisiana State University, where she also completed a year as chief resident. As a faculty member at LSU, Dr. Dawkins spent six years as an associate program director for the pediatric residency program.


*Presented by John’s Hopkins All Children’s Hospital

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