Ear infections in children result in more trips to the pediatrician or other healthcare provider than any other illness. The American Academy of Pediatrics reports that every year, there are over 5 million cases of acute ear infections in children. About 80 percent of 3 year olds have had at least one ear infection; about 40 percent have had more than three. Ear infections are also the most common reason for antibiotic prescriptions.
As a parent or caregiver, how knowledgeable are you about this common childhood illness? Take this quiz to find out.
Ear Infection Quiz
- True or False: There is only one type of ear infection.
- True or False: Fluid in the middle ear always means there is an infection.
- True or False: A child needs antibiotics any time she has an ear infection.
- True or False: Once a child starts antibiotics for an ear infection, pain and fever will immediately clear up.
- True or False: Keeping your child up to date with the recommended vaccination schedule can help prevent ear infections.
- False. Ear infections can affect the ear canal or the middle ear, and there are three types of ear infections. “Swimmer’s ear” is an infection of the ear canal. Two other types of ear infections happen when fluid builds up in the middle ear, the area behind the ear drum. The medical term for middle ear infection is otitis media.
- False. Sometimes a child will have fluid in the middle ear but there won’t be any signs of infection, such as pain, pus or fever. In other cases, fluid in the middle ear will be infected. This type of ear infection is called acute otitis media. The infection in acute otitis media can be caused by bacteria or viruses.
- False. Pediatricians want to avoid giving antibiotics for conditions that will get better on their own. In many cases, children with ear infections get well without antibiotic treatment. Overprescribing of antibiotics can lead to antibiotic resistance. Also, a child may be exposed to potentially harmful side effects from a medicine that isn’t needed. The pediatrician may prescribe acetaminophen or ibuprofen for pain and ask the parent to “watch and wait.” If signs and symptoms don’t improve after a few days, treatment with antibiotics might be indicated.
- False. Antibiotics take at least a day or two before they start to work and improve signs and symptoms like fever or pain. To help your child feel better faster, treat pain and fever with acetaminophen or ibuprofen according to your pediatrician’s advice.
- True. The pneumococcal vaccine has significantly reduced the number of ear infections in children. Before this vaccine was introduced, a 1989 study showed that 62 percent of babies had at least one ear infection. In a 10–year study done after the pneumococcal vaccine became available, researchers found that only 23 percent of babies had ear infections. This significant decrease is because the pneumococcal vaccine targets Streptococcus pneumoniae, one of the main pathogens that causes acute otitis media.
How to Prevent Ear Infections
Not every ear infection can be prevented. However, the following steps have been shown to reduce your child’s risk of getting an ear infection:
- Make sure your child is up to date on vaccinations. Acute otitis media is often caused by bacteria, commonly S pneumoniae. The pneumococcal vaccine protects against S pneumoniae.
- Breastfeeding protects your baby from infections. Breastfeed exclusively until your baby is 6 months old. Then continue to breastfeed for at least 12 months to protect your baby from infections, including acute otitis media.
- Children can get ear infections after a cold. Viruses can cause fluid in the middle ear. Getting a flu vaccine every year can help protect your child.
- Be aware that children who go to daycare are exposed to more viruses and bacteria than children who don’t. Encourage frequent handwashing and other measures to stop the spread of germs. One example is to teach children to cough or sneeze into their sleeve as opposed to their hand.
- Don’t expose your child to tobacco smoke. Studies have shown that children whose parents smoke are at increased risk for ear infections.
- Allergies can increase the risk of respiratory problems, which may lead to ear infections. Take steps to reduce allergens in the child’s environment if allergies are a problem.
Brenda Schoolfield is a freelance medical writer who splits her time between Austin and Seattle.