Toddler Ear Infections: Symptoms, treatments, and when to call a doctor

Nick Rosen, MD
Medically reviewed by Nick Rosen, MD
High five provider and child

Ear infections are no fun for anyone, let alone your toddler. When germs from bacteria or viruses in the back of the throat enter the space behind your child’s eardrum, that space—the middle ear—will fill up with pus and push against the eardrum. That causes the pain that prompts many toddlers to tug at their ears in hopes of getting some relief. If you see the tell-tale tug, or if you notice your child is crying or more fussy than normal, you’re likely dealing with a classic case of otitis media.

Fortunately, toddlers’ ear infections aren’t contagious and tend to clear up within a matter of days. You should still keep an eye on the condition while your child is experiencing symptoms and be prepared to visit your child’s pediatrician if the infection is still lingering after several days.

Causes of middle ear infections

It’s quite common for children less than five years old (especially from six months to two years old) to develop an ear infection, and it’s usually a side effect of a cold that the toddler has had for a few days. This is because the Eustachian tube, which connects the back of the throat to the middle ear, can swell due to a cold. According to Nemours Children’s Health, boys tend to develop ear infections more often than girls.

Other known risk factors for toddlers’ ear infection development include:

  • Exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Bottle-feeding
  • Allergies
  • Attending daycare with other kids
  • Having a cleft palate (children with cleft palates tend to have inflamed Eustachian tubes)

Ear infection symptoms in toddlers

Depending on the age of your child, he or she may or may not be able to tell you exactly what’s wrong and how they feel. Toddlers with ear infections may also be running a fever, but there are other signs you can look for that may clue you in to your child’s condition. These include:

  • Difficulty eating and drinking, as these actions can cause pain in an infected ear
  • Trouble sleeping or lying down
  • Reduced ability to hear quiet sounds
  • Fluid draining from the infected ear

How toddlers’ ear infections are diagnosed and treated

A doctor will examine your toddler’s ear with an otoscope to look for signs of infection, then recommend treatment based on the type and nature of the infection, your child’s age, potential risk factors, and how long the infection has been present. In many cases, doctors will recommend a “wait and see” approach because so many ear infections tend to clear up on their own. While waiting, over-the-counter pain medications like acetaminophen (for children younger than 6 months) and ibuprofen (for children older than 6 months) can be used to relieve pain. Antibiotics are occasionally used to treat ear infections but aren’t frequently prescribed.

When to call DispatchHealth

If your toddler’s ear infection hasn’t improved several days after he or she first began experiencing symptoms, it’s time to seek medical attention. The pressure from gradual fluid buildup can eventually rupture the eardrum, leading to yet another medical problem requiring prompt attention.

You should call 911 or visit the emergency room if your child is running a high fever or experiencing severe symptoms, but DispatchHealth can help with mild to moderate cases. We bring the full experience of the doctor’s visit to your home and can send a detailed report to your child’s pediatrician after we’re done. We can also call in any necessary prescriptions. Schedule an appointment today by calling us or visiting our website.


DispatchHealth relies only on authoritative sources, including medical associations, research institutions, and peer-reviewed medical studies.  

Sources referenced in this article:


About DispatchHealth

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DispatchHealth works in conjunction with health systems, provider groups, senior living communities, home health organizations, payers and employers to provide a comprehensive spectrum of healthcare services, ensuring that most patients with acute, intensive, or chronic health conditions can receive exceptional and cost-effective medical care at home. We provide top-rated, high-acuity healthcare for medically complex patients in their home.

Patients can also contact DispatchHealth directly by phone, app or website. DispatchHealth is partnered with most major insurance companies.

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