I cannot count the number of times I have seen someone in the ER because their child is pulling at their ears. No fever or fussiness. No runny nose or cough. Eating well and drinking well. Just concern that this could be a subtle sign of an ear infection.
Well, my subjective experience in the ER is that 10 times out of 10 these happy, playful kids pulling at their ears do not have an ear infection. There are all kinds of potential reasons they may be pulling at their ears, but in the absence of the more specific signs of infection (like fever, fussiness, congestion, etc.), ear infection is very unlikely.
Of course, this is just my opinion. To really address this issue we need to look for an objective source that has studied the association between pulling at the ears and actual ear infection. As luck would have it, when I search the medical literature I find an article titled…
Is ear pulling associated with ear infection?
By Dr. Baker
Dr. Baker is a pediatrician who often encountered this parental concern in his practice. So he thought he would conduct a little study to see if there was any correlation between pulling at the ears and actual ear infection.
So he looked at everyone who came to his practice with the complaint of pulling on the ears. He enrolled 100 patients in his study. Of these patients 20 had no other complaints – just pulling at the ears. The other 80 had a variety of other complaints – runny nose, fever, congestion, fussiness, etc.
Of the patients who only complained of ear pulling, none of them had ear infection (0 out of 20). Of the patients who had fever and ear pulling, less than 1 in 4 had an actual ear infection.
If your child is pulling at their ears but is otherwise happy, playful, and not showing other signs of illness, they don’t have an ear infection. Even if they do have some other symptoms of illness, ear pulling is still a very poor predictor of actual ear infection.
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