About ear infections

Ear infections are common in children and can make your child very uncomfortable. In fact, two-thirds of children experience at least one ear infection by the time they turn 3 years old.

Some children have long-term, or chronic, ear infections. Others have repeated, or recurring, infections in their ears. For many kids, ear infections cause pain and irritation. For some, these infections also cause temporary hearing loss.

If your child suffers from frequent or long-lasting ear infections, we work quickly to find the cause and begin treatment to relieve their pain and restore their hearing.

Types and risk factors

How ear infections develop

Most children experience ear infections when they’re young.

Young children are more likely to get ear infections, also known as otitis media. At younger ages, the part of your child’s ears connecting the middle ear to the throat, called the eustachian tube, is short and flat.

This part grows over time, but it makes it hard for natural secretions to drain out of the ears when children are little. These secretions may build up behind your child’s eardrum, causing a condition known as a middle ear effusion. For some kids, these secretions become infected and cause pain, making them uncomfortable and irritable. This infection happens most often if your child has a cold.

In some cases, bacteria from the throat will back up into the eustachian tube, causing infection. Common colds often cause this, but other things can cause ear infections too, such as:

  • Acid reflux (gastroesophageal reflux disease)

  • Allergies

  • Exposure to smoke

  • Lying flat on their back to drink a bottle

Recurring ear infections

Unfortunately for some children, ear infections happen over and over again. Allergies can cause these recurrent infections. If your child has more than three ear infections within six months, or four or more ear infections each year, we can help you determine which treatment options might be best.

Symptoms and diagnosis

What we look for to diagnose ear infections

Our ear, nose and throat specialists carefully piece together your child’s symptoms to diagnose an ear infection.

To make a correct diagnosis, we first talk with you about your child’s symptoms, including how severe they are and how long they’ve lasted. Then, we carefully examine your child’s ears to determine the cause of the ear pain.

Otitis media symptoms

Common and uncomfortable ear infection symptoms include:

  • Disturbed sleep

  • Headache

  • Fever

  • Irritability

  • Nausea

  • Pain

  • Poor balance

  • Temporary hearing loss in the affected ear

Keep in mind your child’s pain might be worse when they lay down.

Treatments and research

You have options for treating your child’s ear infection

The right treatment helps your child recover faster.

Recent research shows that many ear infections get better by themselves with no treatment. And in most cases, there are no side effects. However, depending on your child’s needs, your care team may prescribe antibiotics to help clear your child’s middle ear infection. Antibiotics can help if your child is younger than 2 years old, or if they have a severe infection or one that won’t go away on its own.

There are steps you can take at home to help reduce your child’s pain. Try raising the head of your child’s bed to help ear fluid drainage. We can also recommend pain medications. You may try changing the temperature of your child’s ear to break up any blockage. Hold a warm water bottle or heating pad to the outside of their ear. Or put a few drops of cold water into the ear. If your child is in a great deal of pain, we may prescribe ear numbing drops.

Treatment for recurring infections

Other options may work if your child has ear infections often (more than three in six months or more than four a year). Daily antibiotics can sometimes reduce infections. Or in some cases, we might suggest ventilation tube placement surgery.

Ventilation tube placement involves making a small cut in the eardrum, draining any fluid, and placing a small, thin plastic tube through the hole to keep it open. The tube eventually falls out on its own. For many children, this procedure helps stop recurring ear infections.

Smiling child with sign reading UW Health Kids
UW Health Kids
Our pediatric experts have served the special needs of children for more than 100 years. We focus on each child’s unique needs and offer social and emotional support to help you and your child face even the most complex condition. Our long history includes the creation of medical advances that save lives around the world. Together, we get your child back to health and enjoying being a kid.

Meet our team

Specialty care for children’s ear infections

Our pediatric ear, nose and throat specialists focus on easing your child’s symptoms, helping your child recover from ear infections and preventing ear infections in the future.

Our providers


Expert care that’s close to home

Visit one of our many locations for expert ear infection care.