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It’s an unfortunate fact of life: Your child is likely to get an ear infection sometime in her first few years. In fact, about one-third of all children will be diagnosed with acute otitis media, or ear infection, by the time they turn 1. About 50 percent will get an ear infection by age 2, and up to 85 percent will have had at least one by the time they start preschool.
Sometimes figuring out if your baby has an ear infection is a no-brainer: She’s wailing, has a high fever and is tugging at her ear. But often the symptoms are more subtle, such as general fussiness or difficulty sleeping.
So what should you do if you suspect your baby has an ear infection? Many experts agree that after she has reached a certain age and as long as she isn’t in extreme distress and does not have a high fever, it’s safe to hold off on taking her to the doctor so her body has a chance to fight off the illness. Where the experts differ is at what age it’s safe to wait: Some say that any baby younger than 2 with a suspected ear infection should be taken to the doctor; others believe that a child must be taken in only if she is younger than 6 months.
If you do choose to take your child to the pediatrician and he finds that she has an ear infection, he may suggest that she take antibiotics. For babies older than 6 months, however, some doctors and parents prefer to hold off and see whether the infection progresses and symptoms worsen. >>
Treat or let them be?
The dilemma comes if your baby doesn’t have an infection when examined but does show symptoms such as a slightly bulging eardrum, which may precede an infection. In this case, antibiotics should be administered in any baby younger than 6 months. “In a baby older than 6 months who has mild symptoms, you can hold off,” says Charles Shubin, M.D., director of pediatrics at Mercy FamilyCare in Baltimore.
Many parents fear that by not giving their babies antibiotics, they could inadvertently cause such problems as a ruptured eardrum. The truth is, a ruptured eardrum, which occurs in about 5 percent to 10 percent of ear infections, is unpleasant but not a big deal, says Richard Rosenfeld, M.D., a professor of otolaryngology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., and a co-chairman of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ subcommittee on otitis media. “It’s like a pimple popping,” he says. “The pus comes out and the child usually feels much better. Unless it happens often, it has no effect on hearing.”