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Vaccine Offers Hope for Children's Earaches

Earaches are common during childhood, but a vaccine can ease the pain for thousands of kids.

Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine, marketed under the brand name Prevnar, was approved by the FDA in 2000. An improved form of the vaccine, Prevnar 13, was approved in 2010.

Prevnar 13 targets the most common strains of pneumococcus, one of the bacteria that causes ear infections, but that also cause many cases of serious illness in infants, such as pneumonia, bacteremia (a blood infection), and meningitis (an infection of the lining of the brain and spinal column). Studies suggest that Prevnar 13 will prevent most—about 80 percent—of these serious infections in children under 5 years old, although it does not prevent all ear infections.

Infants can receive the vaccine as a series of inoculations at 2, 4, 6, and 12 to 15 months of age. It is also important to keep your child up-to-date on all of his or her other vaccinations, including the flu vaccine, which has been shown to reduce the occurrence of some kinds of ear infections. Ask your child's health care provider if you have questions about the vaccine.

Limited choices

Although Prevnar 13 will help to prevent some ear infections, parents should be prepared to deal with the earaches that affect most kids at least once by age 3. The usual source of the pain is inflammation and increased pressure in the middle ear caused by fluid buildup because of infection (called otitis media).

Pain relievers such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen definitely help, but when it comes to antibiotics, many experts are split on whether to use them or not. Some favor not using antibiotics, because ear infections will usually clear up on their own.

The reason some doctors don't always treat with antibiotics is that many of the bacteria that cause middle-ear infections have become drug resistant. The usual doses of common antibiotics won't kill them. And overusing newer antibiotics may lead to more drug-resistance problems. Ear infections are also sometimes caused by  viruses and don't need antibiotics to clear up on their own. Your doctor can determine what kind of infection is present and what treatment is best. Your doctor will consider the age of your child, severity of illness, and other health care conditions. They may recommend waiting a couple days before using an antibiotic to see if your child gets better on his or her own.