Kids and Ear Infections

About three-fourths of children have had at least one infection by the time they are 3 years old. It’s no wonder that ear infections are the most common cause of earaches in children.

Ear Infection Symptoms

An ear infection is an acute inflammation of the middle ear caused by fluid and bacteria behind the eardrum. “Usually it starts with a cold, so the child will have a runny nose and a cough. Colds can lead to ear infections in susceptible children,” says Dr. Nguyen Pham, an ear, nose and throat specialist at CHOC. “Older kids will pull on their ears and tell you their ears hurt. For infants, symptoms can include fever, irritability, or changes in their eating and sleeping patterns. A pediatrician can look at the eardrum to diagnose an ear infection.” Generally, ear infections are treated with oral antibiotics.

Protect Little Ears

“The best thing families can do is to have really good hand hygiene,” says Dr. Pham. “Everyone should wash hands constantly. Encourage children to not touch their faces with their hands or rub their eyes,” he says. Colds and the flu can frequently lead to ear infections, so children should be protected against colds and get a flu vaccine, Dr. Pham advises.

Hearing Loss Help

“An acute ear infection can lead to temporary hearing loss because of the fluid behind the eardrum. That type of hearing loss will get better over several weeks. If it doesn’t get better, that’s the time to go to the pediatrician or a specialist,” says Dr. Pham. If you suspect your child has hearing loss, ask for an audiogram, which is a formal hearing test. A pediatrician can perform this test or refer the child to a specialist such as an audiologist or otolaryngologist.

Is there an effective, preventative surgical treatment for children with frequent ear infections?

Children who have four or more ear infections per year meet the criteria to have ear tubes inserted into the eardrum. Ear tubes create a drainage pathway for bacteria behind the eardrum to get out, so infections don’t form. This is a commonly performed surgery in the U.S. and is very effective in preventing ear infections.

Fast Facts

  • Number of babies born in the U.S. with permanent hearing loss: 3 in 1,000
  • Percentage of children in the U.S. with some hearing loss: 10%
  • Percentage of children who will have at least one ear infection by their second birthday: 90%

Meet Dr. Pham - CHOC Otolaryngologist

Dr. Nguyen Pham specializes in pediatric otolaryngology – head and neck surgery. Dr. Pham completed his residency at the UC Davis Medical Center and a fellowship at Stanford University. He practiced advanced surgical techniques in airway reconstruction, otological surgery and the treatment of congenital defects at Stanford’s Lucille Packard Children’s Hospital. Dr. Pham has participated in many humanitarian endeavors, including a medical mission to perform cleft lip and palate surgeries in the Philippines and helping patients in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Dr. Pham speaks fluent Vietnamese.

Dr. Pham’s philosophy of care: “My philosophy is to truly listen to my patients and to provide compassionate care based on the best possible scientific evidence.”

UC Irvine School of Medicine


Dr. Nguyen PHam

What Parents Can Do to Prevent Ear Infections

Ear infections are common in babies and children, but they can be prevented by focusing on cold and flu prevention and family hygiene, a CHOC physician says.

Frequent hand-washing by all family members helps cut down on the spreading of germs, and it’s also important to discourage children from rubbing their hands on their faces or in their eyes.

Dad carrying his son on his shoulders

Hearing Problems In Children

Nguyen Pham, MD, talks about hearing loss in children, the most common birth defect. Hearing loss can also happen as a result of a severe inner ear infection. Dr. Pham discusses the what to look out for and what to do if your child exhibits signs of hearing loss.

Learn more about ENT services at CHOC.

Earaches Instruction Sheet

Earaches in children are common. They can be caused by fluid behind the eardrum, an infection in the middle part of the ear, or an infection in the ear canal (also known as swimmer’s ear). Kids under 5 years old are at risk for ear infections, especially after upper respiratory infections.

Smiling children

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