Ear problems in children factsheet

Introduction

Children's ears are usually smaller, with narrower and more flat lying inner tubes. This makes them more likely to experience ear problems and hearing loss caused by: 

  • trapped fluid
  • foreign objects
  • infections. 

Issues with the outer, middle, and inner ear are common in children and should always be assessed by a doctor as soon as they happen. 

 Signs and symptoms

Symptoms of an ear problem in children can include:

  • tugging, rubbing, or pulling at the ear
  • being irritable
  • having difficulty sleeping
  • fluid coming out of the ear
  • buildup or crust of wax inside and around the ear
  • difficulty hearing
  • loss of balance
  • fever.

See your local doctor or present to the nearest emergency department if your child is experiencing:

  • high fever that will not go down
  • severe pain
  • blood or pus-like discharge coming from the ear.

Diagnosis

Your child's doctor can diagnose ear problems by looking at the outside and inside of the ear and checking your child's symptoms. 

If the problem is severe or requires further scans and testing, they may refer you to a specialist Ear, Nose, and Throat (ENT) doctor.

Common ear problems in children include:

Treatment

The treatment of common ear problems will depend on: 

  • the type of issue
  • your child's symptoms
  • how severe it is. 

Some ear problems can be treated with medication at home, while others may need surgery to fix. 

Your child's doctor will recommend the best treatment for their ear problem.

 Management

Glue ear

The middle ear makes a watery fluid to stay moist. If this fluid becomes thick like glue, it can become trapped and cause hearing loss and infection. This is called glue ear. 

Children are more at risk if they:

  • have a severe cold or flu
  • have a nasal allergy-like allergic rhinitis
  • have a condition that affects the shape or the muscles of the eustachian tube, like cleft palate or Down syndrome
  • live with a family member who smokes
  • are Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander.

Glue ear that has not gone away by three months may need to be treated with grommets.

Grommets are small tubes that are inserted into the ear to help fluid drain out. 

It is important not to leave glue ear untreated, as it can cause hearing loss and issues with learning and development.

Excess Wax

Ear wax is a soft substance in the ear that is produced by the ear canal glands. It protects the ear from things like:

  • water
  • foreign objects
  • germs that lead to infection.

Ear wax is constantly made. The new wax pushes the old wax out of the ear. Chewing and talking can also help work the wax out of the ear. 

Ear wax is yellow or orange in colour and thick and pasty in texture. During bath time, you can use a wet washcloth to gently remove excess wax from your child's ear. Do not insert cotton buds into the ear to clean out the wax.

Sometimes, ear wax can build up inside the ear and become hard. When this happens, your child may feel an ache and temporarily lose their hearing. 

If the built-up ear wax cannot be removed with gentle cleaning, your child will need to see their local doctor to have it treated.

Treatment to remove ear wax can include:

  • medicated drops to soften the ear wax
  • flushing of the ear with a syringe
  • using a micro-suction machine to remove the wax.

Objects in the ear

Children can often try to insert small objects into their own or other people's ears. They will do this because they are exploring and are interested in how things feel.

Everyday objects that get stuck in ears include:

  • small toys, like Lego bricks
  • beads
  • cotton buds
  • seeds or stones from fruit or other foods
  • rocks
  • batteries
  • anything else they may find on the floor.

Insects can also fly or crawl into the ear and become stuck.

If a child has something in their ear, don't try to remove it yourself, as this can cause infection or damage. Go to a doctor or emergency department to have it removed. If necessary, you will be referred to a specialist for treatment.

Lower the risk of objects being inserted into your child's ear by:

  • supervising children while they are eating smaller foods like peas or corn kernels
  • avoiding toys with small pieces or pieces that come apart easily
  • sweeping or vacuuming the floor regularly.
Last updated Monday 17th June 2024

Disclaimer

This factsheet is provided for general information only. It does not constitute health advice and should not be used to diagnose or treat any health condition.

Please consult with your doctor or other health professional to make sure this information is right for you and/or your child.

The Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network does not accept responsibility for inaccuracies or omissions, the interpretation of the information, or for success or appropriateness of any treatment described in the factsheet.

© Sydney Children’s Hospitals Network 2024


This factsheet was produced with support from John Hunter Children's Hospital.