Ear infections are quite common in children, with around 8 in 10 getting an ear infection before their third birthday and 30-45% of these children getting more than one infection.1
Here, we look at why that might be and a few steps you can take to prevent repeat ear infections.
Why do children get more ear infections than adults?
The short answer is that children are more likely than adults to get ear infections because their bodies are still developing.
In babies and toddlers, for example, the Eustachian tube (a passageway that bridges the upper part of the throat and middle ear) is so tiny and horizontal that it can be difficult for air to enter the middle ear easily. This can create pressure and cause fluid to build up — causing ear infections.
Winter can be a particularly common time for children to get ear infections. Ear infections can develop at a faster rate in winter because the common cold, enlarged tonsils, or asthma can all create blockages to this passageway. 2, 3
Risk factors for ear infections in toddlers
Some children may be more prone to infections, and this can be down a range of things.
The risk of ear infection in children can come from attending childcare or toddler groups, being exposed to second-hand smoke, forgetting to wash their hands or simply a family history of infection.4, 5
Ear infection symptoms in children
The main symptoms of an ear infection to look out for in children include:
- a temperature
- issues with balance
- changes in speech and language
- mild-to-moderate temporary hearing loss
- liquid or pus discharge
- rubbing or pulling their ear
Some of these symptoms, or a combination of them, may help to determine the specific type of ear infection your child may have, so it’s important to mention anything you’ve noticed to your GP when you take them in for an appointment.
One type of ear infection in particular — otitis media with effusion (OME), or glue ear — may slow down the speech and language development of your child if they get it a lot. 7 The symptoms for this type of ear infection may not include an earache, but you may notice subtle developmental or behavioural changes which can suggest hearing loss.6
Learn more about glue ear here.
How to prevent ear infections in your child
- Vaccinate your child against the flu every year, especially toddlers attending childcare.9
- Your child should wash their hands regularly to prevent the spread of germs and limit the risk of catching a cold.
- Avoid exposing your baby to cigarette smoke as it increases the risk of ear infection.
- Avoid letting young children fall asleep with a bottle or a dummy. It may cause pressure changes in the Eustachian tube, encouraging ear infection. 10
- As much as possible, limit your child’s exposure to sick children and keep them at home when they’re ill.
An ear infection usually clears up on its own, but if you don’t see a change in your child’s condition after three days, we’d recommend seeing your GP. Medicines, like paracetamol or ibuprofen, are not usually recommended, but your GP may prescribe a course of ear drops or antibiotics.
You can also try our free online hearing test if you’re curious to see how good your hearing is.
1. Leung AKC, Wong AHC. Acute Otitis Media in Children. Recent Pat Inflamm Allergy Drug Discov. 2017;11(1):32-40. doi:10.2174/1874609810666170712145332
2. Knopke S, Böttcher A, Chadha P, Olze H, Bast F. Seasonal differences of tympanogram and middle ear findings in children. Saisonale Unterschiede von Tympanogramm- und Mittelohrbefund bei Kindern. HNO. 2017;65(Suppl 1):68-72. doi:10.1007/s00106-016-0288-6
3. Yiengprugsawan V, Hogan A. Ear infection and its associated risk factors, comorbidity, and health service use in Australian children. Int J Pediatr. 2013;2013:963132. doi:10.1155/2013/963132
4. Hawkins SS, Hristakeva S, Gottlieb M, Baum CF. Reduction in emergency department visits for children's asthma, ear infections, and respiratory infections after the introduction of state smoke-free legislation. Prev Med. 2016;89:278-285. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.06.005
5. Marchisio P, Bortone B, Ciarcià M, et al. Updated Guidelines for the Management of Acute Otitis Media in Children by the Italian Society of Pediatrics: Prevention. Pediatr Infect Dis J. 2019;38(12S Suppl):S22-S36. doi:10.1097/INF.0000000000002430
6. National Institute of Clinical Excellence. Otitis media with effusion. 2016. https://cks.nice.org.uk/otitis... Last accessed July 2020
7. Price J. Otitis externa in children. J R Coll Gen Pract. 1976;26(169):610-615
8. Kaushik V, Malik T, Saeed SR. Interventions for acute otitis externa. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(1):CD004740. Published 2010 Jan 20. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD004740.pub2
9. Norhayati MN, Ho JJ, Azman MY. Influenza vaccines for preventing acute otitis media in infants and children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017;10(10):CD010089. Published 2017 Oct 17. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010089.pub3
10. Brown CE, Magnuson B. On the physics of the infant feeding bottle and middle ear sequela: ear disease in infants can be associated with bottle feeding. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2000;54(1):13-20. doi:10.1016/s0165-5876(00)00330-x