Baby Ear Infection Vs Teething (How To Spot The Difference)

Is your child showing some signs that you fear might be indicative of an ear infection? Or are you wondering if it’s just teething? This post shares the difference between baby ear infection vs. teething, the signs to watch out for, and how you can help your baby find relief. 

image of baby ear infection vs teething

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Signs of teething

Teething occurs in different stages, and their signs differ in babies.

Some babies will be born with their first tooth, while others will start teething before they turn four months old. Others could even delay until after a year, but the average time for teething is around six months.

The commonest signs of teething in babies include:

  1. Drooling

Saliva softens your baby’s gums and lubricates their mouth. It is always beneficial in the process of digestion. 

However, your child’s body will produce more saliva when they are teething to ease the eruption of the new teeth. This saliva will often escape from the baby’s mouth because they are yet to develop the mouth muscles that will help them control the saliva.

  1. Crankiness

Babies frequently cry when they are tired, hungry, wet, or uncomfortable. But if your baby keeps crying after you have fed them, bathed them,  and they have rested, it could be a sign that they are teething. 

You may also notice that they become unsettled for no reason and are not interested in playing.

  1. Gnawing on things

Kids gnaw on things to relieve the discomfort they feel from an emerging tooth. This is quite different from your baby using their tongue to explore. When they are developing new teeth, they will bite on everything, and their bite on your fingers can be quite painful.

Photo of a laughing baby
  1. A slight temperature increase

Children do not have a fever when teething, but their temperature can slightly increase, up to 38 degrees Celsius. This increase in temperature will likely happen a day before the tooth erupts and a day after.

Frequently check your baby’s temperature to be sure it doesn’t rise above 38 degrees Celsius. That could be a sign of fever.

  1. Teething Rash

Rashes can occur on a baby’s body for many reasons. However, when they also chew on things and drool, it’s a sign of teething.

Teething rashes are often chapped and dry and look like eczema. They mostly occur on the neck, chest, chin, and/or cheeks.

  1. A sore mouth

The baby’s gum and mouth will feel sore, especially around the spot where the tooth is erupting. This can make a baby that started eating solid food suddenly lose interest. However, they will still like feeding from bottles and breastfeeding.

  1. Rubbing the face and ear

Kids can rub their face on the sheets when they have eczema, but this act can also be a sign of teething if other symptoms accompany it.  This rubbing of the face will cause excess saliva to spill on the sheets because of the lack of muscle control. They can also tug at their ears when the discomfort is much as an attempt to find relief.

Photo of a baby sucking on his fingers; baby ear infection and teething have similar characteristics

Signs of an ear infection in babies

An ear infection usually causes fluid to build up at the back of the eardrum. It has the following signs in children: 

  1. Fever

Fever is the commonest symptom of ear infection in children. Unlike teething where the temperature is slightly raised, fever in children can be higher than 38 degrees Celsius. Visit the doctor if your child has a fever and a temperature above 38.9 degrees Celsius without other symptoms.

  1. Running nose, cough, vomiting, or diarrhea

Babies will likely drool when they’re teething, but you shouldn’t expect a running nose or cough. Also, vomiting and diarrhea are not signs of teething, but of illness. So visit your child’s pediatrician immediately.

  1. Difficulty sleeping

An ear infection is very uncomfortable and your child will likely not find quality sleep. Though babies wake up intermittently in the middle of the night, notice when your baby is breaking off their habitual sleep pattern. For instance, if your baby usually wakes up once or twice before dawn, but now wakes up more frequently to cry, it’s a sign that there is something wrong.

  1. Crying and irritability

There’ll be times when babies cry and get fussy for a while. However, if your child cries so hard that nothing you do seems to help, it could be that they have some discomfort that you don’t know about. Visit the doctor if your child becomes more cranky.

  1. Fluids draining from the ear

Pus-like discharge from the ear is an undeniable sign of an ear infection. This fluid builds up behind the eardrum and comes out of the ear with time. Visit your child’s doctor if you notice this. Also, seek urgent care if you notice a bloody discharge from your child’s ears.

Photo of a baby touching his ear; baby ear infection and teething have similar characteristics

Is my baby teething or sick?  

Teething babies will likely drool, gnaw on things, and be cranky. They can also have a high temperature of up to 38 degrees Celsius. However, if your baby has a high temperature, running nose, diarrhea, or less interest in feeding, it’s a sign that there’s something wrong. 

Always trust your instincts when it comes to your child. If you feel like there is something wrong, visit your child’s doctor.

What to do if your child is teething 

Teething can be pretty uncomfortable for a baby. Do the following to help:

  • Ask the pediatrician if you can administer baby painkillers to your child to relieve the pain. If it is acceptable, give them their weight-appropriate dose.
  • Keep a clean face towel close by to wipe off the excess drool from your baby face.
  • Cool appropriate teething rings and toys in the fridge, and use them to soothe your baby’s gums. Avoid extremely cold or frozen teething toys as they can hurt your baby’s mouth. Also, clean the  rings and toys after your baby uses them.
  • Hold on to a damp and well-folded washcloth for your baby to chew
  • Instead of allowing your baby to chew on anything, give them a hard teething cracker.
  • Wash your hands in cold water and use it to massage your baby’s gums before the breastfeeding session. That will prevent them from biting your nipple while feeding.
Photo of a teether used to relieve teething pains

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What to avoid when your baby is teething

You could be tempted to use many things to help your baby relieve teething pain. But using products called “teething aids” or teethers, that are not safe choices, can be harmful to your baby. Some of them are

  • Frozen solids. They are too hard for your baby’s mouth
  • Teething products filled with fluids that can  tear or spill
  • Teething products made from plastics and other breakable materials. They can make your baby choke.

Always read the makeup of baby teethers before buying for your baby. Some of them could contain harmful substances like lead. Rubber teethers are better for a baby’s health.

Photo of a teething toy used to relieve teething pains

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How to relieve ear pain from teething

When teething, some kids could pull or tug at their ears so badly that they become raw or bleed. At this point, you should step in and deter the obsession. Put a new pair of socks or little mittens on your baby’s hands so that the effects on the ear will be milder. 

Also, distract the kid by giving them something to do with their hands. It could be something loud or colorful enough to distract them from the pain. A beautiful rubbery toy is a great way to get them off the ear discomfort and develop their motor skills.

Additionally, a cool pacifier can help soothe this teething pain. You can also use a baby pain medication, but ask your pediatrician first.

If your baby’s ear tugging worsens, check in with your pediatrician to be sure it’s not an ear infection. The pediatrician can recommend some antibiotics or other treatments to help curb the infection.

What to do if you think your baby has an ear infection

Ear infections are very common in children. In fact, five out of six children will experience at least one ear infection before age three. The following home remedies can help soothe your child’s discomfort from the ear infection

  • Place a warm, wet compress on your baby’s ears for 10 to 15 minutes to reduce the pain
  • If you do not suspect a ruptured eardrum and fluid is not draining from your baby’s ear, slightly warm sesame oil or olive oil up to room temperature, and put a few drops into the affected ear.
  • Keep your child hydrated. Swallowing may open the extension tube and help a baby drain the trapped fluid.
  • Put one or two pillows under your baby’s mattress to  slightly raise their head when they lie in the crib. This will promote drainage of the sinus flute. Avoid putting a pillow directly under the baby’s head
  • Let your baby’s pediatrician prescribe a weight-appropriate dose of baby painkiller for your baby.

When should I take my baby to the doctor for an ear infection? 

Take your baby to your child’s doctor if they won’t stop crying, or the ear pain lasts for more than three days after administering antibiotics. Go back to the doctor if the ear discharge doesn’t reduce after three days of administering antibiotics.

FAQ

How do I know if my baby is teething or has an ear infection?

The symptoms of teething are almost the same as that of an ear infection. Though your child would have a raised temperature when teething, it doesn’t go above 38 degrees Celsius. Also, they will drool excessively and their gums could be red and swollen. The gums may also be tender and they will want to chew on hard things. However, a baby with an ear infection will cry inconsolably and may have a high fever.

How do babies act when they have an ear infection?

Babies usually cry, fuss, or act more irritable than usual because of the pain and pressure they experience from the ear infection.  They will also tug or pull their ears. 

Though these symptoms are also common with teething, high fever, difficulty sleeping, and fluid draining from ears can be differentiating factors between the two conditions.

How can I comfort my baby when they have an ear infection?

The best way to comfort your baby when they have an ear infection is by taking cues from them. if your child is clingy, then they want you to carry, cuddle, and rock them.

Also, administer the medications given by your child’s doctor. Use a warm compress against their ears, and give them food and water during the infection.

Can babies have an ear infection without fever? 

Fever is a symptom of an ear infection, but not every child experiences it. So, you should look out for other symptoms of ear infection including ear pain, ear tugging, difficulty sleeping or hearing, ear drainage, etc.

Can teething cause ear infections?

Teething is quite similar to an ear infection because the nerves around the mouth and teeth are also connected to the ears. However, it does not cause an ear infection. An ear infection will likely happen when your baby has a cold or flu, or after that. They can also have a fever.

Does ear infection only hurt at night?

Ear infection doesn’t only hurt at night. However, the pain will worsen at night, or when your child is lying down, chewing, or sucking a bottle because the pressure is greatest then.

Could it be teething or an ear infection?

As a parent, you can’t help but worry when your child is uncomfortable. And it can be quite disturbing when you don’t know the cause of your baby’s suffering. Differentiating between teething and an ear infection can give you rest and help you know how well to manage the situation for your child. 

Remember that teething won’t make your baby have a high fever, and an ear infection won’t cause drooling. Trust yourself to care well for your baby and if you notice that your child does  not feel well despite the care you offer, take them to their pediatrician.

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