Weekend ear pain action plan

Ken posted, “It’s a Saturday afternoon, and my 7 year old son says his ear hurts. Why can’t my pediatrician call in an antibiotic? I hate to go to the ER and wait.”

Even if your child really does have an ear infection, an antibiotic isn’t the first thing he needs. In fact, it may not be necessary at all!

First: there are a handful of causes of ear pain. An “ear infection” is infected fluid behind the eardrum, in a space called the “middle ear.” The medical term for this is “otitis media,” sometimes called “acute otitis media” to stress that it begins suddenly. Acute otitis media almost always occurs after a child has had nasal congestion for a few days, most typically from a cold. If your child complains of ear pain and hasn’t been congested, it probably isn’t an ear infection.

Swimmer’s ear refers to an infection in the ear canal, the part right inside the opening, outside of the eardrum. This usually, but not always, occurs in children who have been swimming. Swimmer’s ears hurt a lot. If you waggle the outside part of the ear, it will hurt even more.

Rarely, ear pain can also be from a tooth or jaw problem, or from something stuck in the ear canal. And sometimes, kids complain of ear pain when there is nothing at all that a doctor can see that is a problem. It’s just sensitive in there, and sometimes kids complain of pain for no particular reason.

So: if your child looks miserable, and is in a lot of pain, he should be seen right away. If the pain is more mild or moderate, give him a dose of pain medicine like ibuprofen, or have him hold a warm heating pad against the ear. If the pain subsides with these simple measures, an emergency trip to the doctor or ER is not necessary.

What happens if you delay starting antibiotics for an ear infection? Here’s an insider tip: ear infections usually go away on their own! So waiting a day or two, if your child is reasonably comfortable, is a good way to avoid extra costs, hassle, and antibiotics that aren’t really needed.

Note that this advice is meant for children older than two who can speak and describe what they’re feeling. If your child is younger, you should call your doctor for more specific advice on whether you ought to wait a few days before being seen on the weekend.

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One Comment on “Weekend ear pain action plan”

  1. […] what to do if you suspect your child has an ear infection after hours – Dr. Roy wrote an excellent article a few years ago addressing just that […]


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