My son woke up this morning complaining of ear pain. We are supposed to get on a plane to visit family in a few days. What should I do?

Ear pain can be caused by many things, including problems with the jaw, migraine headaches and a buildup of ear wax in the ear canal. However, the most common cause of ear pain is an ear infection. There are two main types of ear infections – outer ear infections (otitis externa) and middle ear infections (otitis media).

Outer ear infections, also known as swimmer’s ear, occur when moisture collects in the outer ear canal, changing its normal bacterial balance and causing an infection. Despite the name “swimmer’s ear,” outer ear infections can happen all year round and don’t always result from swimming. For example sweat accumulating under headphones can also cause an outer ear infection.

A good way to test for an outer ear infection is by moving the ear back and forth (flicking). If this causes pain, then your son may have an outer ear infection. Ear drops usually do the trick for these infections, and the pain and discomfort slowly go away as the infection subsides. Your child may need ibuprofen to help with the pain.

Middle ear infections are more common in younger children and are caused by fluid being trapped in the middle ear. To diagnose an ear infection, you need to see your pediatrician, who will use an otoscope to see if there is an infection. With a middle ear infection, a child can have a fever, be irritable and complain of ear pain. Oral antibiotics and pain control, such as ibuprofen, are the best way to treat these infections.

Whatever the type or cause of the ear pain, it’s important to contact your doctor or go to urgent care and get a proper diagnosis. If his ear infection is treated right away and depending on the type of infection, your son should be able to fly.  


Rahul Shah Rahul Shah, MD, MBA, serves as Vice President, Chief Quality and Safety Office at Children’s National as well as senior vice president for the Children’s National Hospital-Based Specialties Center. His clinical interests include the broad realm of pediatric otolaryngology.

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