Weekend Ear Infections

What to Do When the Dcotor Isn't In

Baby Ear Exam
Baby Ear Exam. Stephen Chiang/Getty Images

Ear infections know no boundaries: Your little one can develop one at any time of day, on any day of the week—from first thing on Christmas morning to ten minutes after you arrive on vacation to Saturday evening just as you're heading out for an overdue date night. An ear infection won't wait for a more convenient moment, and it certainly won't be respectful of your pediatrician's office hours.

If your child develops symptoms of an ear infection over the weekend, here's how to make sure she gets the best medical care and ways to help her feel better once she's on the mend.

Call Your Pediatrician First

It almost goes without saying, but when you have a baby in pain or who's running a fever, your first reaction may be to rush to the emergency room. But just because your child's doctor isn't camping out in her office at 2 a.m. on a Saturday morning doesn't mean she or another doctor in the practice isn't reachable. When you call, you'll probably need to leave a message with an answering service that will relay the situation to the doctor on call. That doctor will call as soon as she can.

This is especially important if your child is under 6 months old. Although standard treatment for ear infections in older kids is to wait to see if the problem resolves on its own before giving antibiotics, very young babies usually should be treated more quickly. 

Urgent Care or Emergency Room?

Urgent care centers are clinics that remain open nights and weekends but are less expensive than the emergency room.

They're meant for dealing with illnesses and injuries that aren't life-threatening—such as ear infections. Most communities have at least one, but if you can't find an urgent care clinic and you have insurance, call the member services number for help.  A useful website for finding after-hours clinics and other medical services is UCompareHealthCare.

If your child does not have insurance, is under the 6 months, and has symptoms that need to be evaluated by a doctor right away, head to the nearest ER. Legally your child cannot be turned away regardless of your ability to pay.

A child needs to be seen by a doctor immediately if she:

  • has a high fever
  • is inconsolable or clearly in severe pain
  • is lethargic: You can't wake her up, she's slow to respond or seems unusually sleepy or inactive.
  • isn't able to eat or drink or refuses to 
  • seems dehydrated—she isn't wetting her diapers, there are no tears when she cries, and her lips are dry and cracked

Waiting It Out

If you have a child over 6 months who has symptoms of an ear infection but isn't in extreme pain, it's probably best to wait out the weekend and then call your regular pediatrician first thing Monday. Meanwhile, to keep your child as comfortable as possible:

  • Give her an age-appropriate dose of Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Motrin (ibuprofen) as needed to help relieve pain.
  • Keep her head elevated to sleep so that her eustachian tube can drain: If she lies with her head flat, fluid can accumulate behind her eardrum and cause pressure and pain.
  • Distract her. Keep her entertained with books, toys, games, a favorite video—anything she enjoys doing with you. Often a little TLC is a more powerful pain reliever than medication.  

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