So your little one is cranky. They’re pushing their food away, waking up 20 minutes into naptime, and letting you know that it’s not ok to put them down. What’s the matter?
If your little one is ticking all these boxes, it’s common to assume that they’re teething. But second place on the list of possible issues is often an ear infection.
So if you’re asking yourself ‘How do I know if my baby has an ear infection or teething?’ you’ve come to the right place.
Here are some of the ways you might be able to tell the difference between a baby ear infection and teething symptoms.
In this article 📝
- Teething vs. ear infection
- Ear infection vs. teething: Shared symptoms
- Classic ear infection symptoms
- Other common ear infection symptoms
- What should I do if my baby has an ear infection?
Teething vs. ear infection
Everything in your baby’s face is connected. If one part hurts (say, their gums) another part (say, their ears) hurts as well.
And because they can’t really tell you what’s wrong, it can be difficult for parents to get to the bottom of the problem.
With the teething vs. ear infection question, things are even more complicated.
You might assume that your baby’s fussiness is related to some new little teeth taking the stage, but you won’t know for sure until you can see them.
Sometimes teething symptoms can start a week or two before you see the teeth. That’s a long time to wait for confirmation.
As well as needing to cut a lot of teeth, babies get a lot of ear infections.
The vast majority of kids will pick one up (and be completely fine again) by the time they turn three.
The tubes in their ears are small and it’s easy for fluid to get trapped behind their eardrum. There’s also not a lot you can do to prevent ear infections.
It’s just something they need to grow out of.
Can babies get ear infections from teething?
Although teething pain and ear pain are linked, teething doesn’t cause ear infections.
The thing that’s most likely to cause an ear infection is actually the common cold. And the chances are that your baby is going to encounter that more than a few times before all their teeth come through.
Ear infection vs. teething: Shared symptoms
While teething isn’t usually responsible for an ear infection, the symptoms definitely overlap. Do any of these sound familiar?
- Fussiness, crankiness, grouchiness, grizzling – whatever you call a baby who’s having a really bad day
- Loss of appetite
- Trouble falling asleep at their normal times, or trouble staying asleep
- A little bit more drool and mucus than you’re used to.
And then there’s the classic: pulling their ears.
You might have heard that teething and ear pulling go hand in hand.
But the truth is that most babies have an ear tugging phase, and it often has nothing to do with their teeth.
There’s something attached to the side of their head! It’s kind of stretchy! Ears are so interesting they might even try to get their fingers inside yours from time to time.
But they do also tug on their ears if they’re teething, because it helps to relieve the pushing feeling under their gums.
And they also tug on their ears if they have an ear infection, because it makes the pain and pressure go away.
So if you’re seeing any of these ambiguous symptoms, how are you supposed to know what’s causing them?
Classic ear infection symptoms
Here’s the easiest way to tell the difference: in young children, an ear infection is almost always accompanied by a high fever.
A lot of people say that teething causes a fever. And for some babies, there’s definitely a pattern.
The difference between a teething fever and a fever response to an infection, though, is that teething fevers are usually low-grade and short-lived.
An ear infection fever will probably be a lot higher and quite stubborn to treat.
So, whereas a teething baby might have a slight fever at bedtime, a baby with an ear infection might need fever medicine for a few days, because their temperature keeps rising again when one dose wears off.
A note on fever and young babies: If your baby is younger than three months and has any fever over 100.4°F (38°C), take them to the doctor immediately. Between three and six months, the number to watch for is 102.2°F (39°C). And, as always, go with your gut. You know your baby best.
Other common ear infection symptoms
- Fluid draining from their ear (although this doesn’t always happen, especially at the beginning of the infection). This usually means the eardrum has burst. This isn’t as dramatic as it sounds – it will heal, and it will actually relieve quite a lot of your little one’s pain.
- Difficulty hearing or responding to sounds that they normally respond to.
- Loss of balance (in older, more mobile babies).
- Lack of energy or interest in the things they normally like.
- Their symptoms and discomfort get worse when they’re lying down.
But the only way to know for sure that your little one has an ear infection is to take them to their doctor. They’ll then be able to look inside your baby’s ear with a small torch for signs of redness and infection.
What should I do if my baby has an ear infection?
First things first: it’s best to keep their ears dry, and you definitely should not try to clean them with a cotton bud, even if there’s visible fluid.
At home, you can treat a fever with age-appropriate doses of children’s acetaminophen or ibuprofen. Let them rest, and make sure that they’re well hydrated.
But if your little one has been unwell for longer than two days, and isn’t getting better on their own, it’s always best to see their doctor about an ear infection.
There’s a high chance that they’ll prescribe antibiotics. And they’ll be able to give you further advice about the best way to manage your little one’s pain and fever.
Within a week or so, they should be back to their normal self.
And for advice on how to help a teething baby, check out these posts:
How Long Does Teething Last?
12 Easy Baby Teething Remedies
How To Soothe A Teething Baby At Night
What to Know About an Infected Umbilical Cord