Ear infections are some of the most common reasons parents take their children to the doctor. They’re also the most common reason for antibiotic use in children. Symptoms of ear infections include ear pain (often exhibited through fussiness, crying or tugging/pulling at the ears), fever, fluid drainage from the ear, difficulty sleeping, and trouble balancing or hearing.
If you suspect your child has an ear infection, you may be wondering how much treatment costs, where you should go for care and how you can prevent recurring infections. Here are some answers to parents’ common questions.
How much does it cost to treat an ear infection?
A recent study conducted by UCLA found that ear infections in children account for nearly $3 billion in health expenses each year. Typical healthcare costs associated with ear infections include:
- Initial and follow-up doctor visits: Although the price of a doctor visit varies by region and your insurance provider, the average copay in the United States for a visit is between $5 and $75. For patients without insurance, a doctor’s visit can cost an average of $25 to $250.
- Over-the-counter treatments: Most ear infections are viral and can cure themselves with time. In this case, your doctor may recommend Tylenol, ibuprofen or warm olive oil drops for pain management—costs for these treatments are minimal. If pain does not improve within 42-78 hours or your child develops a fever over 102°F, you may need an antibiotic.
- Antibiotics: If your child’s infection is bacterial, your doctor will likely prescribe an antibiotic. Depending on your insurance provider, typical copays for antibiotics can cost anywhere from $5 to $50. Patients without insurance can expect an average cost up to $110 for a seven-day prescription.
- Ear tubes: If your child has frequent ear infections, your doctor may recommend ear tube surgery. The average cost of this surgery for patients without insurance ranges from $2000 to $3000. Out-of-pocket costs for patients with insurance vary depending on whether they have met their deductible—the average deductible for a family plan is $8352. Surgeries performed in an outpatient surgical center cost significantly less than those in a hospital setting. If your child needs ear tubes, ask your doctor if the surgery can be performed in a surgical center.
Should I Take My Child to the Urgent Care or ER for an Ear Infection?
If your child has an ear infection and needs medical attention, it may be difficult to know what level of care he or she needs. Urgent care facilities are typically open after hours and on weekends to care for medical needs that can’t wait until the next day, and they are significantly cheaper than hospitals. Urgent care providers are trained to handle immediate medical needs that are not life-threatening, like ear infections.
Although most ear infections can be treated at an urgent care, some symptoms may require emergency treatment:
- Dehydration: Signs of dehydration include dry, cracked lips, absence of tears when crying and long periods of time without urinating.
- Lethargy: Signs of lethargy include difficulty waking up, unusual sleepiness and slower responses than normal.
- High fever or clearly severe pain.
- Pus or blood leakage from your child’s ear.
If you aren’t sure whether your child’s ear infection is a true emergency, call your doctor or local urgent care.
How Can I Help Prevent Ear Infections?
The best way to avoid doctor visits and healthcare costs associated with ear infection is prevention, and the best way to prevent ear infections is to minimize the risk factors that cause them. Here are some things you can do to lower your child’s risk of ear infection:
- Vaccinate your child against the flu each year.
- Avoid exposing your child to cigarette smoke and other forms of air pollution.
- Never put your child down to sleep with a bottle.
- Teach your children about proper hygiene and the importance of washing their hands regularly.
- Avoid exposing your child to other sick children and look for smaller daycare settings when practical.
Ear infections are not usually serious, but the cost of treating recurring infections can add up. If your child has an ear infection, contact your doctor. He or she can offer treatment and prevention recommendations.
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