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Baby Basics

Q&A: What Is Middle Ear Inflammation?

How does middle ear inflammation differ from an ear infection?

Ever notice how adults rarely get ear infections, but kids seem to get one every other day? Well, that’s because kids have a horizontal middle ear canal (the area right behind the ear drum, connected to the inside of the mouth), so when fluid gets in there, it’s hard to drain out and it gets inflamed (your middle ear canal is more slanted). Don’t panic if baby is screaming, crying and red in the face — middle ear inflammation is painful, but not threatening.

Think of middle ear inflammation as similar to a stubbed toe — it’s swollen and painful, but it’s not an infection. The inflammation becomes an infection when fluid doesn’t drain out of the ear canal and bacteria starts to form (yuck!). To a pediatrician, this is the difference between seeing clear fluid behind the eardrum and fluid that’s thick and yellowish (double yuck!).

But as far as you’re concerned, check for changes in baby’s behavior to determine whether she has ear inflammation or an infection. If she has a cough or runny nose, but is still playing, eating, peeing and sleeping as normal, she probably just has inflammation, and it should go away on its own. But if she’s screaming, has a high fever and is having trouble sleeping, it’s most likely an infection, so you’ll want to schedule an appointment with your pediatrician. She’ll be able to give baby the proper antibiotics, and you’ll both feel better in no time.

By Dr. Cheryl Wu