Many children will have minor hearing loss during or right after an ear infection. Most of the time the problem goes away. Lasting hearing loss is rare, but the risk increases with the number of infections.
The eustachian tube runs from the middle part of each ear to the back of the throat. This tube drains fluid that is made in the middle ear. If the eustachian tube becomes blocked, fluid can build up. This may lead to pressure behind the eardrum or an ear infection.
Ear pain in adults is less likely to be from an ear infection. Pain that you feel in the ear may be coming from another place, such as your teeth, the joint in your jaw (temporomandibular joint), or your throat. This is called "referred" pain.
Avoid smoking near children. Secondhand smoke is a major cause of ear infections in children.
Prevent outer ear infections by not putting objects in the ear.
Dry the ears well after bathing or swimming.
Take steps to control allergies. Try to avoid allergy triggers.
Try a steroid nasal spray to help reduce ear infections. (However, over-the-counter antihistamines and decongestants do NOT prevent ear infections.)
When to Contact a Medical Professional
Call your doctor if:
Your child has a high fever, severe pain, or seems sicker than is usual for an ear infection.
Your child has new symptoms such as dizziness, headache, swelling around the ear, or weakness in the face muscles.
Severe pain suddenly stops (this may be a sign of a ruptured eardrum).
Symptoms (pain, fever, or irritability) get worse or do not improve within 24 to 48 hours.
What to Expect at Your Office Visit
The doctor will do a physical exam, and look at the ear, nose, and throat areas.
Pain, tenderness, or redness of the mastoid bone behind the ear on the skull is often a sign of a serious infection.
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O'Handley JG, Tobin EJ, Shah AR. Otorhinolaryngology. In: Rakel RE, ed. Textbook of Family Medicine. 8th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 19.
Lieberthal AS, Carroll AE, Chonmaitree T. Clinical Practice Guideline: The Diagnosis and Management of Acute Otitis Media. Pediatrics. 2013;131(3): e964-e999.
Coker TR, Chan LS, Newberry SJ, Limbos MA, Suttorp MJ, Shekelle PG, et al. Diagnosis, microbial epidemiology, and antibiotic treatment of acute otitis media in children: a systematic review. JAMA. 2010 Nov 17;304(19):2161-9.
Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.