Understanding your child’s earache

Help with diagnosing and dealing with your tot’s sore ears

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Earache in babies and toddlers is very common and usually signals an ear infection. “More than three quarters of diagnosed ear infections are seen in children under 10,” says Dr Roger Henderson, GP and adviser for netdoctor (www.netdoctor.co.uk). There are two types of ear infection – middle ear and outer ear, and, not surprisingly, they’re more common during the winter months.

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Middle-ear infection

“This is the most common type of ear infection and it happens because of a build-up of fluid in the middle ear that’s become infected with bacteria,” says Dr Henderson.

If it’s an acute infection it’s short term and comes on suddenly, but a chronic one has less severe symptoms, lasts longer and keeps returning. Whatever the infection, it hurts – a lot. Dr Henderson explains why: “The infection causes pressure in the ear, which affects the nerves and causes pain.”

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Outer-ear infection

This is when the external ear canal has become inflamed as a result of an infection. It can sometimes be caused by getting water inside the ear or by an allergic reaction to something that has come into contact with the ear.

Eczema sufferers are susceptible to getting this type of ear infection,” says Dr Henderson. “This is because they’re prone to developing patches of dry, red, itchy skin, which can sometimes happen in the ear and become infected and painful.”

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In the UK, 1.7 million children have eczema

Spotting the signs

“If your little one is suffering from an ear infection you might notice him pulling at his ears, which might look more red on the outside than usual,” says Dr Henderson. He may also have a temperature, or attacks of screaming – where one minute he’s as happy as Larry and the next he’s wailing like a banshee. Also look out for general signs of sickness, including vomiting, being off his food, irritability and tiredness.

The worst-case scenario? “Occasionally an eardrum will burst and the fluid will come out, but it’s not that common, as usually ear infections are treated before they get to this stage,” adds Dr Henderson.

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Getting help

“Most ear infections settle down on their own, particularly if they’re viral, but if they’re bacterial and don’t clear up, your child will be prescribed antibiotics,” says Dr Henderson. If it’s an outer-ear infection he may also be given ear drops.

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In the meantime, give him infant paracetamol or ibuprofen for the pain but avoid swimming and hair washing as his ears must be kept dry until he’s better.

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