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Ear problems in a child often leave parents worried, exhausted and frustrated, especially when symptoms develop at nighttime or on a weekend. Like other ear symptoms, ear odor and itching may indicate a serious problem. Knowing the facts about ear odor and itching—and how to deal with these common symptoms—can help you protect your child’s hearing.
If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, seek emergency treatment immediately.
Ear odors generally are a sign of ear drainage, which could be earwax, blood, pus or ear fluids. Using a flashlight to visually inspect your child’s ears can help you assess the ears for the presence of obvious drainage. The drainage may be thick or thin and can be clear, yellow or blood-tinged. According to MayoClinic.com, itchiness and an odorless ear discharge may occur in the early stages of an external ear infection, also called swimmer's ear; pus and excessive fluid drainage generally develop when your child’s ear infection worsens 15.
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery, itching, odor or ear discharge could also be a sign of cerumen impaction 23. Characterized by the presence of wax buildup in your child’s ear canals, cerumen impaction often causes a gradual loss of hearing as well.
Pain accompanying ear odors or itching typically indicates a more serious problem with your child’s ear, generally an ear infection. Older children should be able to tell you if they have ear pain, but younger children often indicate ear pain with their actions. According to Dr. Anthony Komaroff, author of “Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide,” signs of ear pain that younger children may demonstrate include excessive irritability, pulling or tugging on the affected ear or bouts of crying 4.
Ear discharge warrants a prompt visit to your child’s doctor, since it could be a sign of an ear infection or ruptured eardrum, notes Komaroff. Even if you don’t see signs of ear drainage, arranging an appointment with your child’s doctor is usually the safest option if your child has ear odor and itching. The doctor will use an otoscope to examine your child’s ears and determine the cause of these ear symptoms.
Doctor removal of compacted ear wax typically occurs in a single office visit. During that visit, your child’s doctor may extract the wax manually or use a drop solution or irrigation to remove it from the ear canal. Treatment for an external ear infection generally involves medicated ear drops. The duration of treatment for an external ear infection varies depending on the cause and severity of the infection; typically, the medicated drops are applied once or twice daily for multiple days.
Never probe your child’s ears with sharp or pointed objects, such as cotton-tipped swabs, in an attempt to determine the cause of ear odor or itching. If a child has a wax blockage, inserting objects into the ear canal could shove the wax chunk further back into the ear, which may lead to problems with the eardrum. You could also accidentally scratch the surface of the ear canal, which could cause or worsen an ear infection.
- MayoClinic.com: Swimmer’s Ear Symptoms
- American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery: Ear Wax
- American Academy of Family Physicians: Cerumen Impaction
- “Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide”; Dr. Anthony Komaroff; 2004
- MayoClinic.com: Swimmer’s Ear Treatments and Drugs
- KatarzynaBialasiewicz/iStock/Getty Images