Here's what parents need to know about the common ear infection

What are the symptoms? What are the different types? Are there home remedies?
In the winter months, children's ears become more inflamed, middle ear inflammation in infants and doctors treatment
In the winter months, children's ears become more inflamed, middle ear inflammation in infants and doctors treatmentGetty Images stock

No matter how old you are or what season it is, ear infections are never fun. It's important to be aware of the symptoms of an ear infection so it can be diagnosed and treated as quickly as possible.

TODAY spoke with Dr. Alyssa Hackett a pediatric otolaryngologist from Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about the symptoms and treatments for ear infections.

What are the symptoms of ear infections?

Not all children will have the exact same symptoms. According to Hackett, the most common symptoms of ear infections are:

  • Ear Pain
  • Fever
  • Pulling or tugging at an ear

Other symptoms may include fussiness (or irritability), fluid draining from the ear, balance problems or difficulty sleeping.

"It can be really challenging for parents to know what their child is experiencing," said Hackett, adding that it's even more difficult in this era of social distancing for parents to be able to relay that information to a medical professional who may not be examining the child in person. It's important to understand "where the ear infection is originating from because treatment is based on the type of infection it is," she said.

Are there different types of ear infections?

There are two main types of ear infections, a middle ear infection and swimmer's ear infection. The middle ear infection, acute otitis media, occurs when there is an infection of the middle part of the ear. Swimmer's ear infections, otitis externa, are infections in the outer canal of the ear.

While both ear infections can happen in any age group, Hackett points out that children between the ages of 6 months and 4 years old typically get middle ear infections. Swimmer's ear infections tend to affect older children and adults.

"[Swimmer's ear] does tend to happen around water exposure," said Hackett. "However, water exposure is not required to get otitis externa."

Are there home remedies?

Hackett emphasizes that it's best to receive treatment or advice from a doctor.

As far as popular home remedies go, she explained that they're not proven to be effective. "There is really no indication for people talking about garlic oil or sweet oil or drops that they put in the ear — and none of that really helps," she said.

"Tylenol, Motrin, acetaminophen and ibuprofen — that does help," she said. Using these types of pain relievers will lower your child's fever and level of discomfort.

"The ibuprofen also reduces inflammation," Hackett said. "So using those two medicines helps kids feel less uncomfortable and perhaps gets them over the hump so they don't need an antibiotic."

The CDC also recommends rest and drinking extra water and fluids when treating an ear infection from home.

When should I go to a doctor?

A lot of times ear infections can resolve on their own within 24 to 48 hours of symptoms showing up.

Hackett advises parents of older children, to wait this time period before calling their physician or pediatrician.

But, she added, "if you child is very young and you're worried, and they have a fever and seem uncomfortable, and you're not sure what's going on, I would never discourage you from reaching out to your pediatrician to ask for advice, even right away when the symptoms show up."

You should also immediately reach out to your doctor if your child has a fever of 102.2°F (39°C) or higher, or if the symptoms have not subsided after 48 hours, said Hackett.

If you're unable to physically see your doctor, a telemedicine appointment may be scheduled to assess your child.

"Reach out to the pediatrician and see if they are okay with going ahead and prescribing an antibiotic without seeing the ear — or if the pediatrician would actually prefer seeing the child first," said Hackett. If your child has recurring ear infections — or if there is visible drainage or puss coming from the ear — the doctor may be more inclined to prescribe antibiotics for treatment.

What are the treatments for an ear infection?

"From a pediatrician standpoint," said Hackett, "the standard treatments are either waiting or an antibiotic."

If symptoms do not subside after the standard waiting period of 24 to 48 hours, antibiotics may be prescribed — depending on the type of infection.

"If it's the swimmer's ear, it would be an antibiotic drop and not by mouth," Hackett explained. "And if it's a middle ear infection, it's usually an oral antibiotic. If there are recurrent middle ear infections, then a referral to an ear nose throat doctor like myself may be indicated, (especially) if that child needs ear tubes to be placed to try and break that cycle of ear infections."

If you're worried about a potential ear infection during this time of social distancing, Hackett suggested that parents touch base with their physician or pediatrician to seek guidance on the best care for their child.