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Ear infection 101

Your little one is up all night, fussy, crying and clearly in pain. You rush him to the doctor wondering, is it an ear infection? It might be – but that doesn’t mean your child automatically needs antibiotics.

In fact, according to the Canadian Paediatric Society (CPS) doctors should wait before treating most ear infections with antibiotics in healthy children over six months of age. That’s because researchers recently discovered that ear infections can be caused by a number of different things and, in many cases, children will recover without the use of antibiotics.

“The diagnosis of an ear infection can be incorrect and some are caused by viruses rather than bacteria,” says Dr. Joan Robinson, a member of the CPS Infectious Disease and Immunization Committee. “Also, some kinds of bacterial infections are likely to go away without antibiotics because the immune system alone is adequate.”

It’s important to realize that in children, ear infections are extremely common. Studies have shown that approximately 75 per cent of babies will have at least one episode by the time they are one year old. These infections can be caused by either a virus or bacteria, and usually start on the third day of a common cold.

Wondering if your child might have an ear infection? Watch for these symptoms:

  • Unexplained fever
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Tugging or pulling at the ears
  • Overall irritability

In some extreme cases, your child may also have fluid draining from the ear. It’s rare, says Robinson, but it can happen.

“Rarely, children have fluid draining from their ear,” she says. “This fluid could contain germs. The best way to prevent the spread of these germs is to wash your hands well.”

Treating ear infections without antibiotics

Ear infections are usually not serious and not contagious; the colds that cause ear infections are, however, contagious. Make sure everyone in your household washes their hands frequently to avoid spreading colds and germs.

If your child does have an ear infection, how can you treat it without antibiotics? “Most children will have relief with just acetaminophen or ibuprofen,” says Robinson. “However, the message to parents is, if your child has a cold and then develops signs of an ear infection, take them to the doctor to check it out.”

The CPS says you can also try to prevent ear infections by:

  • Breastfeeding babies
  • Avoiding bottle feeding a baby who is lying down
  • Refraining from using a pacifier too often
  • Avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke and
  • Vaccinating children with the influenza and pneumococcal conjugate at the recommended age


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