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What Is an Ear Infection?

Do you remember having an ear infection? Even if you don't remember, you probably had one. Most kids have at least one middle ear infection before they are 2 years old. These infections can cause ear pain and a fever.

What Is a Middle Ear Infection?

Middle ear infections are one of the most common childhood problems. Let's start by talking about infections. An infection (say: in-FEK-shun) happens when germs like bacteria and viruses get inside the body and cause trouble. Germs can get into your ears. The ear is divided into three parts: outer, middle, and inner. When the germs bother your outer ear, it's called swimmer's ear.

The middle ear is a small pocket of air behind the eardrum. You have a middle ear infection when germs get into the middle ear and the area fills up with fluid (or pus), which contains germ-fighting cells. When the pus builds up, your ear starts to feel like a balloon that is ready to pop, which can really hurt.

How Do I Get an Ear Infection?

Between your middle ear and your throat there is a passage called the eustachian (say: yoo-STAY-she-un) tube. The eustachian tubes (you have one on each side) keep pressure from building up by letting air move in and out of your middle ear. When you were young, especially before you turned 3, the eustachian tubes were very small and less able to keep germs out.

The eustachian tubes get longer and usually work better in older kids, but they can still cause problems. If you have allergies or catch a cold, the eustachian tubes can get blocked up and let germs get in the middle ear. Then the number of germs can grow inside your middle ear and cause an infection.

You do not catch ear infections from other people, though you might catch a cold that then leads to an ear infection. If you have an ear infection, you might have ear pain, a fever, or trouble hearing. If you have any of these problems, tell your parent so he or she can take you to the doctor.

What Does the Doctor Do?

The doctor will look into your ear with a special flashlight called an otoscope (say: OH-te-skope). With the otoscope, the doctor can see your eardrum, the thin membrane between your outer and middle ear.

The doctor may use the otoscope to blow a little puff of air in your ear. Why? To see if the air causes your eardrum to move the way a healthy eardrum does. An infected eardrum won't move as it should because the pus presses against it and may make it bulge. An infection also can make the eardrum red.

If you have an ear infection, the doctor will make a decision about what to do next. He or she might ask your parent to watch you over the next day or two to see if you get any better. The doctor also might suggest a pain reliever to keep you comfortable.

If bacteria are causing the problem, the doctor might prescribe a medicine called an antibiotic (say: an-ty-by-AH-tik), which usually clears up a bacterial infection, so you'll feel better in a few days.

If you are given an antibiotic, it's very important to keep taking the medicine for as many days as the doctor instructs — even if your ear stops hurting. If you don't take all the medicine, the infection could come back and your ear will start hurting again.

A kid who has chronic, or frequent, ear infections might need a few other tests. They include an audiogram (say: AW-dee-uh-gram), which tests your hearing, and a tympanogram (say: tim-PAH-noh-gram), a machine that checks whether your eardrum moves normally.

How to Prevent Ear Infections

What can kids do to prevent ear infections? You can avoid places where people are smoking, for one. Cigarette smoke can keep your eustachian tubes from working properly.

You also can try not to catch colds. These steps can help:

  • Stay away from people who have colds, if possible.
  • Wash your hands regularly.
  • Try not to touch your nose and eyes.

Good luck staying clear of colds and keeping those pesky germs out of your ears!

Reviewed by: Rupal Christine Gupta, MD
Date Reviewed: 01-03-2016

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