Inflammation of the ear in children and babies

Ear inflammation usually occurs in young children. Infections of the upper respiratory tract are more easily transmitted to the ears in children as their ear canals are shorter and narrower.

Ear infection is a common disease in babies and young children. In young children, the ear canals are shorter and narrower, making infections of the upper respiratory tract more easily transmitted to the ears.

Upper respiratory tract infections increase when the child starts day care and are most common in children aged 1 to 3 years. A child may have up to 5–10 respiratory infections per year, lasting from a few days to two weeks.

A previous respiratory infection is the biggest risk factor for ear infection – the more flu there is, the more ear infections there will be. For some reason, boys develop ear infections a little more often than girls. In addition to day care, the risk of ear infection is increased by a large number of siblings.

Breastfeeding protects the child’s mucous membranes and provides also some protection against ear infections. Xylitol reduces the risk of ear infection when used regularly and when healthy, as it reduces the bacterial strain in the nasal cavity. The pneumococcal and influenza vaccines also protect the child against ear infections.

Ear infection symptoms

Ear infection is an infection caused by either a bacterium or a virus, which usually occurs as a result of flu.Inflammation of the ears of a baby or child is usually associated with viral respiratory infection. Children with inflammation of the middle ear usually have a cold and cough. The majority have ear pain, which in babies and young children is primarily manifested as restlessness during the night.

Symptoms of ear infection in babies and children include:

  • ear pain
  • child with a cold begins to be in pain and wakes up at night
  • the cold lasts for more than two weeks
  • ear begins to secret
  • difficulty in hearing.

When should you see a doctor?

Anti-inflammatory drugs may be used as first aid for ear pain caused by ear infection. Ear pain often starts at night and treatment does not require immediate medical attention. It is therefore possible to postpone the visit until the morning, for example.
In case of prolonged illness, it is advisable to see a doctor who will see if the illness has caused a discharging ear infection. It can sometimes be followed by the development of a so-called glue ear, where the middle ear accumulates resilient secretion, which causes difficulties in hearing.

Examining an ear may feel unpleasant to a young child, but it is harmless and usually painless. The adult just needs to hold the child firmly in their arms so that the doctor can quickly look into the child’s ear.

At Mehiläinen, small children with ear problems are served by paediatricians, general practitioners as well as otorhinolaryngologists. If you need further instructions or want to book a doctor’s appointment, please call Children’s Mehiläinen at 010 414 0414 (0,0835 €/call + 0,1669 €/min) or book an appointment through Mehiläinen’s booking system. Our phone service is open every day from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m. Remember that help is always available in the Digital Clinic every day! The service can be accessed through the OmaMehiläinen mobile application or online service.

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Treatment of ear infections

Ear infections are sometimes treated with antibiotics, but often they heal without treatment.
If antibiotic therapy is not initiated, the symptoms of infection will be treated with painkillers and monitored for a few days. Especially in older children who can tell about their pain, treatment without an antibiotic may be a good option, as long as the recovery is well monitored.

The infection is treated symptomatically with painkillers and good hydration. The child may feel better with nasal spray, nose drops or saline spray, even if they do not speed up the healing of the infection itself.

In case of recurrent ear infections it is advisable to consult a specialist. It might be necessary to insert ear tubes. Often, the size of the pharyngeal tonsils in the nasal cavity is also checked and, if necessary, they will be removed. Removing the tonsils does not help to prevent recurrent ear infections, but they can be removed, for example, due to snoring.

Ear tubes

Ear tubes are usually inserted when ear infections are recurring or when the child develops glue ears, i.e. chronic ear infection. For example, four to six ear infections a year indicate a recurring ear infection, and sometimes the ear does not fully recover even between infections. Small tubes are inserted through the eardrums to allow air to enter the middle ear.

During the procedure, the child is anaesthetised with an anaesthetic mask by an anaesthesiologist. Parents are allowed to be next to the child at the time of anaesthesia. When the child falls asleep, the parents move to the waiting room. When inserting ear tubes, the doctor makes an incision of about one millimetre in the child’s eardrum. Secretion is sucked out from the middle ear and a tympanostomy tube is inserted into the eardrum. The procedure takes about 10 minutes.

The child will be taken to the recovery room, where the parents can arrive when the child wakes up. The child’s condition is monitored for about an hour in the recovery room. The family can return home on the same day. Success of ear tube treatment is monitored at control visits approximately every 3–4 months.

Ear, nose and throat specialist Mari Hero was consulted for the article.

Specialists and locations

Minna Aaltonen
LT, lastentautien erikoislääkäri
Antti Aarnisalo
Dos, Korva-,nenä- ja kurkkutautien erikoislääkäri
Henrikka Aito
LT, lastentautien erikoislääkäri
Minna Aromaa
LT, lastentautien erikoislääkäri