Earaches In Children: How To Know If It’s A Cold Or Ear Infection

How To Know If It’s A Cold Or Ear InfectionChildren commonly come down with earaches, which can be related to an ear infection or an upper respiratory infection. The most common causes of earaches include an infection centered in the middle part of the ear, infection of the ear canal (commonly referred to as swimmer’s ear), and a buildup of fluid behind the eardrum.

Earache Caused By Cold Vs. Ear Infection

Both a cold and an ear infection can create pain and discomfort in the ears. It’s not always clear which is which without seeing a doctor.

If an earache is caused by the common cold it will create a sharp burning pain that ranges from mild to severe. A cold can cause fluid in the inner ear to build up, even if this fluid is not infected (as it is with an actual ear infection), it still creates uncomfortable pressure that causes the ear to bulge and throb. The most common symptoms of an earache caused by the common cold include a fever, green or yellow mucus, and difficulty sleeping.

Your child may or may not have a cold prior to developing an ear infection (otitis media). An earache caused by infection generally comes on very suddenly and can be very painful. When sensory nerve endings located in the eardrum experience pressure they respond with pain.

Common symptoms caused by an ear infection include:

  • Little to no appetite
  • Fussy or irritable
  • Unable to sleep, ear pain often increases when a child lies down because this position causes the build up of fluids to move around. 
  • Vertigo, a sense of dizziness or spinning
  • Fever reaching up to 104 degrees F.
  • Yellow, white or even bloody pus-like fluids draining out of the ear—in some cases this is a sign that the eardrum has ruptured.
  • Trouble hearing normally, when fluids build up in the middle ear it disrupts the eardrum from normal functioning.
  • Even after acute otitis medial clears up, lingering fluids can remain trapped in the ear leading to mild hearing loss.

The only way to know the difference between an ear infection and ear pain caused by a cold is to have a doctor look inside your child’s ears. An infected ear will appear red and inflamed. A doctor may also use an instrument to blow air inside of the ear in order to see how it responds. If there is fluid trapped in the ear the eardrum will not move back and forth normally as it should when air is blown inside.

Treating Earaches Vs. Ear Infections

It’s important to determine the difference between an earache and an ear infection because treatment varies. An ear infection is a treatable condition that requires medications to reduce pain and fever as well as antibiotics to kill off bacterial infections. On earache that is not related to an infection simply requires plenty of rest and medication to reduce pain and pressure.

If your child experiences frequent earaches or ear infections it could be related to fluid in the ear tubes. If this fluid persists for 3+ months a doctor may insert a small metal or plastic tube into the eardrum in order to help remove the fluids and prevent them from building up again. This tube generally remains in place between 8 and 18 months.

The Most Common Causes Of Earaches

Ear Infection: An infection centered in the middle ear that is related to a virus or bacteria. A doctor will be able to determine if the cause is viral or bacterial.

Swimmer’s Ear: This occurs when the skin lining the ear canal becomes infected or irritated. Generally this causes an itchy ear canal, if the ear canal is infected it will be itchy and painful. This is very common in the summertime when kids spend more time in the water.

Ear Canal Injury: If the ear canal becomes punctured or injured it can create discomfort. Something as small as a fingernail or cotton swab can injure the delicate skin lining the ear canal.

Ear Canal Abscess: If a hair follicle in the ear canal becomes infected it can be very painful. It appears as a small red bump, often resembling a pimple.

Earwax: It’s true that a large enough hunk of earwax can contribute to ear pain. If a Q-tip or finger pushes wax into the ear canal it can block the ear canal and increase pain.

Ear Canal With Foreign Object: If your child puts a small object in his or her ear it can get pushed deep inside, creating pain and immediate need for removal.

Airplane Ear: If the ear tube is blocked by something and experiences an increase in air pressure the eardrum will stretch. This is associated with very bad ear pain and may occur during take off or landing of an airplane, as well as on a mountain drive.

Pierced Ear Infections: If your child’s ear has been pierced it is at risk for becoming infected. These types of infections can cause a great deal of pain.

Referred Pain: Ear pain may be related to a different disease or infection that actually has nothing to do with the ears. Some common examples of other infections and diseases that lead to ear pain include:

  • Tooth decay on a back molar
  • Mumps
  • Tonsil infections
  • Jaw pain (TMJ syndrome)

It’s Important To Contact A Doctor If:

  • Your child is ill while taking antibiotics
  • The ear is draining blood or pus-like fluids
  • Ear pain continues to worsen instead of getting better
  • You notice redness and swelling developing behind the ear
  • The ear swells to the point it sticks out from the head

If your child is experiencing ear pain visit Urgent Medical Center today for diagnoses, treatment and peace of mind.

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