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How can I tell if my child has an ear infection or if it’s just a common cold?

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Distinguishing between an ear infection and a common cold in children can be tricky since the symptoms can overlap. However, there are some signs and symptoms that can help you differentiate between the two:

Common Cold Symptoms

  • Runny or stuffy nose
  • Sneezing
  • Coughing
  • Mild fever
  • General fatigue
  • Sore throat

Ear Infection Symptoms

  • Ear pain, which can be severe and worsen when lying down
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fever, usually higher than in a common cold
  • Fluid drainage from the ear
  • Loss of balance
  • Hearing difficulties
  • Increased irritability or fussiness, especially in younger children who can’t communicate their discomfort

Tips to Differentiate

  1. Duration and Progression of Symptoms: If your child starts with cold symptoms such as a runny nose, cough, and mild fever, and then begins to show signs of ear discomfort (pulling at the ear, increased crying, trouble sleeping), this progression may indicate an ear infection.
  2. Fever Patterns: While both conditions can cause fever, a higher fever following a few days of cold symptoms may suggest an ear infection.
  3. Behavior Changes: Increased irritability, difficulty sleeping, and crying more than usual, especially when lying down, can be stronger indicators of an ear infection.
  4. Ear Discharge: The presence of fluid draining from the ear is a clear sign of an ear infection.
  5. Response to Pain Relief: Over-the-counter pain relievers might ease discomfort from both conditions, but if there’s a significant relief in ear pain symptoms specifically after using pain relief, it might point more towards an ear infection.

When to See a Doctor

It’s important to consult a healthcare provider if:

  • Symptoms persist or worsen after a few days.
  • Your child has a high fever (for infants under 3 months, any fever should be evaluated by a doctor).
  • You notice fluid, pus, or bloody discharge from the ear.
  • Your child is very irritable, has trouble sleeping, or shows signs of hearing difficulty.

A healthcare professional can provide a proper diagnosis and recommend the best course of treatment, which may include antibiotics for an ear infection or simply supportive care for a cold.

The Pediatric.me content is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended as medical advice or as a substitute for medical advice of a physician