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Is Your Earache Just a Cold or an Ear Infection?

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What Happens if an Ear Infection Is Left Untreated?

Left untreated, a middle ear infection can have long-term effects that include the following:

  • Inner ear infection
  • Scarring of the eardrum
  • Hearing loss
  • Mastoiditis (infection of the skull behind the ear)
  • Meningitis (infection in the tissues around the brain and spinal cord)
  • Speech development problems in children
  • Facial paralysis

Call Your Child's Doctor Immediately If:

  • Your child develops a stiff neck.
  • You child acts very tired, responds poorly, or cannot be consoled.

Call Your Child's Doctor During Business Hours If:

  • Your child's fever or pain is not gone 48 hours after starting antibiotics. 
  • You have any questions or concerns.

Are There Ways to Prevent Earaches From Colds or Ear Infections?

There are ways to prevent earaches from colds or ear infections in children and adults. Often, altering the home environment and taking preventive measures are all that's needed: 

  • Protect your child from colds, especially the first year of life. Most ear infections start with colds.
  • Ear infections can occur after the flu, so ask your doctor about an annual flu shot.
  • Most kids receive the pneumococcal vaccine, which helps prevent infections with Streptococcus pneumoniae, which used to be one of the main causes of ear infections. Ask your doctor if you're not sure your child has received this vaccine, which is usually given before age 2.
  • Avoid contact with second-hand tobacco smoke, which increases the frequency and severity of ear infections.
  • Control allergies. Inflammation caused by allergies is a contributing factor to ear infection. These may be environmental, inhaled, or even food allergies (dairy being the most common).
  • If you can, breastfeed your baby during the first six to 12 months of life. Antibodies in breast milk reduce the rate of ear infections.
  • If you bottle-feed, avoid bottle propping, holding your baby at a 45-degree angle. Feeding in the horizontal position can cause formula and other fluids to flow back into the eustachian tubes. Allowing an infant to hold his or her own bottle also can cause milk to drain into the middle ear. Weaning your baby from a bottle between nine and 12 months of age will help stop this problem.
  • Watch for mouth breathing or snoring, which may be caused by large adenoids. These may contribute to ear infections. An exam by an otolaryngologist, and even surgery to remove the adenoids (adenoidectomy), may be necessary.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on October 28, 2014
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