Ear infections symptoms and treatment

Ear infections are very common in young children but you can still get an ear infection as an adult.

The three main types of ear infection affect the three main parts of the ear: inner, middle, and outer.

Find out what type of ear infection you may have and get the right treatment today.

Written by Dr Sufian Ali and Professor Antony Narula. Reviewed by Dr Maheinthan Yogeswaran. Last reviewed on 01/03/2019. Next review date 24/09/2022.

Fast facts

Are ear infections contagious?

Ear infections alone are not contagious. However, the infection that causes the condition can be contagious. For example, if you develop an ear infection following the common cold, it is this infection that can be spread to others. You can catch a viral infection if you: * come into contact with the virus in the air after an infected person coughs or sneezes * touch your eyes, nose or mouth after touching an infected surface

How to treat an ear infection?

Ear infection symptoms can vary in severity, but most cases can be effectively managed at home. Pain medication and a warm compress (placing a warm flannel on the ear) are common ways to relieve ear infection pain. You should see a GP to determine the type of ear infection you have as this may affect the treatment you need.


Types of ear infections

The ear is a complex organ responsible for hearing and balance. Ear infections can affect different parts of the ear, including the outer, middle and inner ear.

Different types of ear infection can cause different symptoms, including hearing loss, tinnitus, and vertigo. A doctor can examine you to identify what ear infection you have and provide the best possible treatment. We can help with:

What is an ear infection? And what parts of the ear are affected?

Structure of the ear

The ear is made up of three parts: the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear.

Watch this short video to learn about ear infections in each part of the ear:

The outer ear includes the:

  • pinna - the visible portion of the ear made of cartilage and skin
  • external auditory canal - the ear canal connecting the pinna to the tympanic membrane
  • tympanic membrane - the outer layer of the eardrum

The middle ear includes the:

  • ossicles - the three small bones attached to the eardrum that vibrate and transmit sound
  • Eustachian tube - the tube that drains fluid from the middle ear to the back of the nose and throat

The inner ear includes the:

  • cochlea (part of the auditory system) - the spiral shaped organ that transforms sound into nerve impulses
  • semicircular canals (part of the vestibular system) - includes three canals responsible for balance and spatial orientation

What is a middle ear infection?

A middle ear infection (acute otitis media) is the most common type of ear infection, particularly in children. The infection causes inflammation in the middle ear and traps fluid behind the eardrum. Symptoms may include earache and a high temperature. Sometimes the eardrum may burst and release pus - often easing the pain. Eardrums usually heal once an ear infection runs its course.

There are three types of otitis media:

  • Acute otitis media (AOM). This can occur abruptly and causes inflammation of the middle ear.
  • Otitis media with effusion (OME) also known as ‘glue ear’. This can occur after another ear infection subsides and fluid remains trapped behind the eardrum. OME may show no symptoms but a GP will be able to diagnose the condition using an otoscope.
  • Chronic otitis media with effusion (COME). This occurs when fluid remains in the middle ear for a longer period than 3 months or it is recurrent, even though there is no infection. COME can impair your hearing and make it harder to fight new infections.

What is an outer ear infection?

An outer ear infection (otitis externa) is an infection of the ear canal, the tube that connects the ear opening to the eardrum. The infection causes inflammation of the skin of the ear canal, often causing swelling, redness and itchiness. Otitis externa (commonly known as ‘swimmer’s ear’) is usually bacterial and is prevalent among children and adults who swim regularly.

Otomycosis is a less common cause of otitis externa; it is a fungal ear infection that affects the outer ear canal. The infection is defined by coloured discharge from the ear. Other symptoms may include itching, ear pain and difficulty hearing. Classically a fungal infection would be more itchy than painful. Antifungal medication usually treats otomycosis, but a doctor will be able to determine the best treatment for your condition. Otomycosis is more common in tropical regions because fungi need warmth and moisture to grow.

For more information on otomycosis, read this comprehensive guide.

What is an inner ear infection?

An inner ear infection causes inflammation of the labyrinth (labyrinthitis) or the vestibular nerve (vestibular neuronitis). Both infections are used to describe the same diagnosis, with symptoms including nausea and vertigo. Labyrinthitis results in hearing loss and sometimes tinnitus. In most cases, labyrinthitis may be caused by chronic ear infections or viruses.

Other types of ear infection

Mastoiditis is a rare and serious bacterial infection affecting the mastoid bone behind the ear. The infection causes the air spaces (mastoid cells) in the mastoid bone to become inflamed. Symptoms may include redness, pain, tenderness and swelling behind the ear; alongside common symptoms of an ear infection including discharge from the ear, fever and possible hearing loss. In many cases, mastoiditis follows a persistent middle ear infection.

Important: You should see a doctor if:

  • you or your child have mastoiditis symptoms
  • you’ve had an ear infection that hasn’t cleared up with treatment
  • you have new symptoms following a previous ear infection
  • you’ve been diagnosed with mastoiditis and treatment hasn’t cleared the infection

Herpes Zoster (shingles) is an infection of the nerves caused by the varicella-zoster virus, the same virus that causes chickenpox. Unlike chickenpox, people get can repeated bouts of shingles. The infection is defined by a very painful red rash on the face or ear. Herpes Zoster can also paralyse facial muscles - this is known as Ramsay Hunt syndrome (RHS). You should see a GP right away if you think you have RHS.


Ear infection signs and symptoms

What does an ear infection feel like? Can you have an ear infection without pain? This guide sheds light on ear infection symptoms in adults and the signs to look out for.

Ear infection symptoms can vary in severity depending on the type of ear infection you may have. We can help with:

How do you know if you have an ear infection? And do you need to see a doctor for an ear infection?

What are ear infection symptoms?

Signs of a middle ear infection in adults include:

  • earache
  • slight hearing loss
  • a sense of fullness in the ear
  • a temperature
  • nausea
  • sometimes there can be drainage of pus from the ear

Earache symptoms can resolve if you get a hole in your eardrum (perforated eardrum) and pus comes out of the ear. This is often associated with hearing loss.

Outer ear infection symptoms in adults

Outer ear infection symptoms can include:

  • a red or swollen ear canal
  • pain or discomfort in the ear
  • dry skin or eczema in or around the ear canal
  • itchiness in or around the ear
  • discharge from the ear
  • diminished hearing
  • a sense of fullness in the ear

Inner ear infection symptoms in adults

Labyrinthitis and vestibular neuronitis are both inner ear inflammations with subtle differences. Both infections can cause dizziness, but labyrinthitis also causes hearing loss. Symptoms can vary in severity, with most people experiencing a loss of balance. Common labyrinthitis symptoms include:

  • vertigo (a feeling of spinning)
  • feeling or being sick
  • some hearing loss

Other labyrinthitis symptoms can include:

  • mild headaches
  • ear pain
  • ringing in the ear (tinnitus)
  • fluid or pus discharge from the ear
  • blurred vision

Possible ear infection complications

Ear infection complications are rare but may include:

  • tinnitus
  • hearing loss
  • perforated eardrum
  • mastoiditis
  • cholesteatoma
  • necrotizing otitis externa
  • problems with speech and language development (children)
  • facial paralysis (very rare)
  • meningitis (very rare)
  • brain abscess (very rare)

When should you see a doctor?

You should see a doctor if:

  • you experience labyrinthitis symptoms and don’t feel better after a few days or if symptoms begin to get worse
  • persistent ear pain
  • you have trouble hearing
  • you have a perforated eardrum or drainage from the ear


Ear infection treatment

In most cases, an ear infection is a self-limiting condition that gets better on its on within 3 days. Depending on the type of ear infection you may have, there are different treatments you can use to relieve your symptoms.

There isn’t a universal cure for an ear infection, but there are various treatments available to effectively manage your condition. We can help with:

How to get rid of an ear infection? And what is the treatment for ear infections in adults?

How to treat an ear infection?

Ear infection treatments depend on what part of the ear is infected.

Middle ear infection treatments can include:

  • decongestants, nasal sprays, or antihistamines for allergy symptoms
  • antibiotics for bacterial ear infections
  • anti-inflammatory medication

Outer ear infection treatments can include:

  • cleaning the ear regularly
  • antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory medication - usually drops
  • antibiotics occasionally if the infection is bacterial or antifungal if it is fungal

Inner ear infection treatments can include:

  • resting and drinking plenty of fluids
  • medication if symptoms are severe
  • antibiotics to treat bacterial infections

Ear drops for ear infections

Acidic ear drops can help to stop bacterial or fungal infections from spreading. You can get ear drops for an ear infection over the counter from your local pharmacy. If you have a perforated eardrum, consult with a doctor before using ear drops as they may get into the middle ear.

Your GP may prescribe antibiotic ear drops, antifungal ear drops, or ear drops containing corticosteroid if you have:

  • an ear infection that shows no sign of improvement after a few days
  • a serious health condition (like cystic fibrosis or congenital heart disease)

How to clear an ear infection with ear drops:

  1. Remove any discharge from the outer ear using cotton wool
  2. Warm up the bottle by holding it in your hand - cold ear drops can cause dizziness
  3. Lie on your side (infected ear facing up)
  4. Put the drops into the infected ear (follow dosage on the label)
  5. Pull and push your outer ear to gently work the drops down your ear canal
  6. Remain lying down for 5 minutes to prevent the drops from coming back out of the ear

Ear infection medicine

Severe bacterial ear infections may require antibiotics. Amoxicillin (an antibiotic in the penicillin family) is usually prescribed on a 5-day course. Erythromycin or clarithromycin are alternative antibiotics if you’re allergic to penicillin.


Remember to take the complete course of any prescribed antibiotic to fully treat the infection.

Outer ear infections

Antibiotic or antifungal ear drops or sprays may be prescribed by your doctor to treat otitis externa. This may be combined with steroid ear drops to reduce swelling. If you have dry skin or eczema, your doctor may prescribe a topical corticosteroid cream or ointment.


Always follow the instructions on the medicine label or leaflet.

Inner ear infections

Inner ear infection medicine can include:

  • an antihistamine (helps with dizziness)
  • an antiemetic (helps with nausea)
  • corticosteroids (helps with inflammation)
  • antibiotics (help treat bacterial infections)

Speak with a pharmacist or your doctor about the best medicine for your condition.


Check the medication label or leaflet to see a list of side effects.

Ear infection pain relief

Pain relief for adults can include:

  • over-the-counter painkillers like paracetamol or ibuprofen
  • a warm compression of the ear using a moist flannel or washcloth
  • removal of discharge from the ear using cotton wool (do not use cotton buds)

Treatment for chronic ear infections in adults

Your doctor may prescribe antibiotic ear drops to treat chronic bacterial ear infections. In very rare cases, you may require surgery. This may be recommended when:

  • you do not respond to other treatments
  • the infection causes severe damage to the ear
  • the infection causes hearing problems


Home remedies for ear infection

Antibiotic resistance has been labelled ‘the greatest threat to health’ by the World Health Organisation. Doctors have been encouraged by NICE to treat children and young people who have middle ear infections with pain relief rather than antibiotics.

There are various home remedies and treatments you can use to help relieve ear infection symptoms at home. We can help with:

How to treat an ear infection with home remedies? And can you fly if you have an ear infection?

Home remedies for ear infections

Popping your ears (medically known as autoinflation) may relieve the feeling of fullness in your ears. Simply pinch your nose, close your mouth, and exhale very gently. This sends air through the tubes to help drain them. Autoinsufflation is a home remedy that can help alleviate built up pressure in the ear. A device called Otovent can be of help in these situations.

Tea tree oil is a natural remedy that may help with outer and middle ear infections. Tea tree oil contains terpinen-4-ol, a chemical compound that kills off bacteria. Although some studies have shown promising results, more research is needed to prove that essential oils help treat ear infections.

Olive oil is another essential oil that contains antibacterial properties. There is no scientific evidence to prove olive oil helps treat ear infections. However, the American Academy of Pediatrics says olive oil could be moderately effective on ear pain.

Garlic is another natural remedy used by some to treat ear infections. Some studies have shown that naturopathic ear drops containing garlic help with ear pain.


Get a doctor to examine your ear before using tea tree oil, garlic oil, or olive oil in the ear.

Inner ear infection dizziness home remedy

To reduce feelings of dizziness, you should sit down immediately when you start to feel dizzy. If you’re having a vertigo attack, lie still to reduce the spinning sensation.


Avoid driving, using tools and machinery, or working at heights if you feel dizzy.

Vertigo home remedies

Vestibular rehabilitation therapy (VRT) is a specialist exercise program designed to improve balance and reduce dizziness. VRT can help people manage chronic labyrinthitis. Speak with your GP to see if VRT referral is available in your area. For some types of vertigo, self-help VRT booklets can improve symptoms.

Home remedies to help with benign paroxysmal positional vertigo (BPPV) include:

  • Epley Maneuver
  • Dix-Hallpike Manoeuvre
  • Brandt-Daroff Exercise
  • Half-Somersault or Foster Maneuver

Can you fly with an ear infection?

If you have hearing loss or fullness in your ear then you should consult a doctor before flying as you might be at higher risk of an ear perforation and subsequent hearing loss. Earache may be worse after flying and it may take longer for pain to settle. You should speak with your doctor or surgeon before flying if you’ve previously had myringoplasty surgery.

How to sleep with an ear infection?

Raise your head when sleeping to help drain fluid from the middle ear. You can do so by propping yourself up with two or more pillows - whichever is most comfortable for you.


Ear infection recovery time

Recovery time depends on your type of ear infection and treatment plan. Some infections can clear up on their own in a matter of days, while others may take many months to clear up.

If you experience hearing problems, dizziness, loss of balance, discharge from your ear, or if your condition deteriorates, a doctor appointment may be needed to help fight the infection. We can help with:

How long does it take for antibiotics to clear up an ear infection? How long does an ear infection last for?

How long does a middle ear infection last in adults?

In most cases, otitis media typically clears up within 3 to 5 days. After an ear infection subsides, fluid may remain in the middle ear. Otitis media with effusion (also known as glue ear) can cause temporary hearing loss and ear pain. Glue ear usually clears up on its own within 3 months.

Treatment can speed up glue ear recovery time. A doctor may suggest trying autoinflation, a technique that helps drain fluid from the ear. This can be done by blowing up a special balloon (Otovent) using one nostril at a time or swallowing while pinching your nostrils closed. This is typically done several times a day.


Autoinflation isn’t recommended for children under 3.

How long does an outer ear infection last in adults?

With treatment, otitis externa often clears up within a week. Many ear drop treatments involve a 7-day course taken several times a day. Always read the directions on the label and complete the full course to fully treat the infection.

How long does an inner ear infection last in adults?

Inner ear infections in adults usually clear up within a few weeks. During the first few days, labyrinthitis and vestibular neuronitis symptoms can be severe. They can significantly affect your quality of life and ability to carry out daily activities. In many cases, vertigo and sickness symptoms will gradually improve over the first few days. Over a few weeks, your hearing and balance should return.

What is a chronic ear infection?

It’s a common misconception that acute and chronic describe the severity of symptoms. Instead, they describe how long an infection lasts. Acute ear infections often come on suddenly and clear up within a week (this varies on the type of ear infection you may have). Chronic ear infections in adults cause ongoing symptoms and last for much longer.

What is a recurring ear infection?

Acute ear infections are single, isolated cases that clear up within an expected timeframe. Chronic ear infections in adults take longer to heal. If an ear infection keeps coming back, it is known as a recurring ear infection. This means the condition clears up but comes back constantly (3 times in 6 months, or 4 times in a year). You should see a doctor if you have a recurring ear infection.


Ear infection causes and prevention

Ear infections can be caused by either a virus, bacteria, or fungi. Different types of the condition are caused by different infections.

Understand what causes an ear infection so you know how to best treat your condition and prevent it from happening again. We can help with:

How do you get an ear infection? And how can you prevent getting an ear infection?

What causes ear infections?

Different types of ear infections are caused by different microorganisms:

  • Otitis media often arises following a viral infection like a sore throat, the common cold, or the flu. Bacteria can also cause middle ear infections.
  • Otitis externa is usually caused by bacteria (like Pseudomonas). Fungal infections and eczema can also cause swimmer’s ear.
  • In most cases, vestibular neuronitis and labyrinthitis are caused by viruses. Bacterial inner ear infections are rare except in patients with pre-existing chronic ear diseases.

Ear infection in both ears

You can get a middle ear infection in one or both ears. When one ear is affected, it’s known as a single or unilateral ear infection. In some cases, the infection can move to the other ear through the Eustachian tubes. Symptoms are more severe and treatment can be more aggressive when both ears are infected. This is known as a bilateral ear infection. It is rare to get an outer or inner ear infection in both ears.

Who is more susceptible to ear infections?

You’re more at risk of an ear infection if you:

  • have upper respiratory tract infections (the infection can spread to the ear)
  • have a narrow, blocked, or damaged ear canal (this can trap water in the ear making it easier for bacteria to grow)
  • have a skin condition like eczema or psoriasis (inflamed skin can narrow the ear canal)
  • are sensitive to chemical products like hair sprays or hair dyes (they can irritate your ear canal)
  • use hearing aids or earplugs (they can introduce bacteria into the ear)
  • live in a hot, humid climate (the warm environment makes it easier for bacteria and fungi to grow)
  • have a weakened immune system (this reduces your ability to prevent infections)

You can keep getting ear infections if you:

  • swim in polluted water (this can introduce bacteria into the ear)
  • swim regularly (this can wash away earwax making it easier for bacteria to grow)
  • don’t dry the ear properly after bathing or swimming (this can leave water in the ear making it easier for bacteria to grow)
  • clean too much earwax from your ears (earwax helps protect the ear from infection)
  • are overzealous when cleaning your ears (this can push wax into the ear making it easier for water to get trapped)

How to prevent ear infections?

It’s difficult to prevent inner ear infections. However, you can reduce the risk of developing a middle or outer infection if you:

  • wear a swimming hat over your ears when you swim
  • avoid swimming in polluted water
  • dry your ears well after swimming or bathing
  • avoid using cotton buds to clean your ears
  • avoid putting your fingers in your ears
  • are quick to treat skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis
  • manage your allergies well
  • maintain good personal hygiene
  • make sure you are up to date with vaccinations

How to prevent dizziness?

Tips to prevent dizziness include:

  • drink plenty of water to avoid dehydration
  • turn the lights on if you get up at night
  • take your time when getting out of bed
  • be conscious to move your head slowly during regular activities
  • avoid stressful situations - anxiety can exacerbate dizziness symptoms
  • avoid alcohol
  • avoid bright lights


For parents: ear infection in children

80% of children will have at least one middle ear infection by the time they’re 5 years old. Ear infections are particularly common in young children and toddlers; possibly because they have shorter Eustachian tubes. This makes it easier for fluid and mucus to build up in the middle ear.

Ear infections are usually not serious but can often cause a lot of pain. There are ways to manage your child’s pain while following a ‘wait-and-see’ approach. We can help with:

What are the signs and symptoms of ear infections in children? And when should you see a GP?

Ear infection symptoms in toddlers and children

Ear infection symptoms in toddlers can include:

  • pulling or rubbing their ear
  • a fever
  • irritability and crying
  • loss of appetite
  • restlessness at night
  • coughing
  • loss of balance
  • slight hearing loss
  • fluid drainage from the ear

There a few signs to look out for that indicate your child is having hearing problems. Your child may:

  • be inattentive
  • be unresponsive to quiet sounds
  • ask people to repeat what they say
  • ask for louder TV or music volume
  • speak more loudly or quieter than normal
  • be difficult to understand

It can be difficult to know whether a young child has an ear infection because some of the signs of an ear infection are common behavioural traits. It’s important to know what ear infection symptoms in children warrant a visit to the doctor.

Complications of ear infections in children

Children can develop the same complications from ear infections as adults. However, they are more at risk of permanent hearing loss from bacterial infections. Other complications include impaired speech development and behavioural problems.

Are ear infections contagious in toddlers?

Ear infections themselves are not contagious. However, the viruses, bacteria, and fungi that cause them are contagious. Good hygiene practices and hygiene education will help prevent the spread of infection.

Ear infection treatment for children

Ear infection treatment for toddlers depends on the type of infection they may have. For:

  • viral infections, antibiotics are not effective so a ‘wait-and-see’ approach is often used.
  • bacterial infections, a doctor may prescribe your child with antibiotics.
  • fungal infections, a doctor may prescribe antifungal ear drops. Fungal ear infections are uncommon in children.

To help manage the pain, young children can take over the counter medicine like paracetamol or ibuprofen at the recommended dose. Do not give both medicines at the same time - try one at first and if this doesn’t work you can try the other.

In some cases, hospital treatment may be required to treat glue ear in toddlers and young children. This may happen if:

  • symptoms affect your child’s learning and development
  • your child had severe hearing loss before developing glue ear
  • your child has a cleft lip or Down’s syndrome

Treatment can include grommets (small temporary tubes placed into the ear to help drain fluid from the ear) or temporary hearing aids. Grommets fall out naturally within 6 to 12 months as the ear gets better. In some cases, adenoidectomy surgery may be recommended to remove the adenoid glands at the back of the nose.


Avoid putting oil drops, ear drops, or cotton buds in your toddler’s ear unless advised to do so by a doctor.

How long do ear infections last in toddlers?

Depending on the type of infection, ear infections usually get better on their own within:

  • a few days (middle ear infection)
  • a week (outer ear infection)
  • a few weeks (inner ear infection)

Acute ear infections in toddlers are often painful at the start but clear up relatively quickly. Chronic ear infections in toddlers last for much longer and cause ongoing symptoms. You should see a GP if your toddler has a chronic or a recurring ear infection.

When to take your child to see a doctor?

You should see a doctor if your child has:

  • a fever
  • ear pain that doesn’t begin to get better after three days
  • swelling around the ear
  • fluid draining from the ear
  • a loss of hearing
  • a severe sore throat
  • dizziness
  • episodes of being sick
  • regular ear infections
  • bilateral symptoms

You should see a GP if you suspect your child has an ear infection and they have a long-term health condition or a weakened immune system.

How to prevent ear infections in toddlers?

It’s difficult to prevent ear infections in children, particularly those that follow the common cold or the flu.

You can help to prevent inner ear infections in children by:

  • keeping your child up to date with vaccinations
  • avoiding smoky environments
  • not giving your child a dummy if they’re older than 6 months
  • avoiding feeding them while lying flat
  • ensuring reflux is treated appropriately if present

You can help to prevent outer ear infections in children by:

  • giving them a swimming hat to wear over their ear while they swim
  • not using cotton buds to clean their ears
  • teaching them not to put dirty fingers in their ears
  • educating them on good hygiene practices


For parents: ear infection in babies

It can be upsetting as a parent if your baby has an ear infection. While babies may be in a lot of pain, ear infections often subside within a few days without the need for antibiotics.

Babies and young children have a more horizontal Eustachian tube, making it easier for fluid and mucus to remain trapped in the ear. Since babies are more susceptible to ear infections, it’s important to learn the signs to look out for. We can help with:

How to tell if your baby has an ear infection? And how to prevent ear infections in babies?

Signs of an ear infection in a baby

Ear infection symptoms in babies are not always clear as they can have similar signs to teething or illnesses like the common cold. Your baby may * have an ear infection if they:

  • pull or rub at their ear
  • have a high temperature or fever
  • have difficulty feeding
  • cry a lot or are irritable
  • are restless at night
  • have a cough
  • do not react to some sounds
  • have fluid draining from the ear


Always seek medical attention if concerned about your baby’s health.

Ear infection treatment for babies

Ear infections in babies usually clear up on their own. A watchful waiting approach is recommended unless your baby displays symptoms that require a GP consultation. If your baby is over 6 months old, a doctor may suggest over the counter infant ibuprofen to ease the pain.


Never give your baby aspirin as this may trigger Reye's syndrome, a rare, life-threatening disorder.

When to see a doctor about a baby with an ear infection?

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking your baby to see a doctor if they have:

  • a fever of 38°C or higher
  • fluid discharge from the ear
  • deteriorating symptoms
  • hearing loss
  • acute otitis media for more than 2 to 3 days
  • glue ear for more than one month

If you are worried about your baby’s health, you should see a GP to explain your concerns rather than attempting to self-diagnose your baby. If your baby has already been diagnosed with an ear infection, you should return to your GP if symptoms don’t start to improve within a few days.

How do you prevent ear infections in babies?

You can help prevent an ear infection in your baby by:

  • staying up to date with their vaccinations
  • breastfeeding for at least 6 months (ideally 12 months)
  • avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke
  • maintaining a hygienic environment at home


What to do: ear infection while pregnant

Your immune system is weaker when pregnant. This makes you more susceptible to the viruses and bacteria that cause ear infections.

Although it can be worrisome, ear infections cannot harm your unborn baby unless the infection spreads to your bloodstream (which is very rare). We can help with:

How to get rid of an ear infection while pregnant? And when should you see a GP?

How to treat an ear infection when pregnant?

Ear infection symptoms when pregnant are the same as if you weren’t expecting. Similarly, ear infection treatments when pregnant depends on the type of ear infection you may have. Before taking decongestants, nasal sprays, antihistamines, or antibiotics, you should first consult with a doctor who can advise you on which medications are appropriate for your stage in pregnancy.

What can you take for ear infections while pregnant?

You can take paracetamol to help manage ear pain while pregnant. Paracetamol is the only painkiller that is considered completely safe to use when pregnant by the NHS. For all medications like antibiotics or ear drops, it’s advised you speak with a GP to get the right treatment for your condition.

When to see a doctor about an ear infection while pregnant?

You should see a GP if:

  • you experience labyrinthitis symptoms like dizziness or tinnitus
  • you have a fever
  • your pain doesn’t begin to get better
  • you have trouble hearing
  • you have a perforated eardrum or drainage from the ear
  • you are concerned about your health or the health of your unborn baby


GRAPHIC: ear infection pictures

From ear canals to fungal infections, the following pictures show what ear infections can look like.

It’s recommended that you see a doctor who can examine your ear using an otoscope. Do not attempt to use these ear infection pictures to self-diagnose yourself or others. We can help with:

What does an ear infection look like?

Middle ear infection pictures

This photo shows a dull ear drum with inflammation. There is no perforation of the eardrum.

Outer ear infection pictures

This picture shows an inflamed outer ear canal with discharge.


Infected ear piercing

When you get your ears pierced, make sure to go to a licensed body piercing shop or piercer. Your piercer should advise you on how to prevent infection and how to care for a new piercing.

Ear cartilage piercings are riskier than earlobe piercings and are more prone to infection. Piercings can also cause bleeding, swelling and scarring, so it’s important to look after new piercings properly. We can help with:

What are the signs of an ear piercing infection? And how to get rid of an ear piercing infection?

Ear piercing infection symptoms

Infected ear piercing symptoms can include:

  • redness and swelling around the piercing
  • ongoing pain and tenderness
  • yellow or green discharge
  • itching or burning sensation
  • a high temperature (fever)

Possible ear piercing complications

Bacteria can grow around the piercing site, sometimes causing an abscess. If left untreated, this may need to be surgically drained and can leave scarring. Severe bacterial infections can lead to life-threatening complications like blood poisoning (sepsis) and toxic shock syndrome.

Doing your own piercing is dangerous. Bacteria can be introduced to the piercing site through unsterile piercing instruments or by touching the piercing with dirty hands. Self-piercing increases the risk of infection and scarring and should be avoided.

How to treat an infected ear piercing?

If you think your piercing may be infected you should see a GP immediately. Untreated ear piercing infections can cause serious complications. If you can’t get a same day GP appointment, visit your local walk in centre or see a doctor at a Medicspot walk in centre.


Get same day treatment with Medicspot

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Our doctors can help diagnose your ear infection to provide the right treatment and advice. Find out what ear infection you may have and start feeling better today. We can help with:

Where is your nearest clinic? And how can Medicspot help?

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About the authors

Written by Dr Sufian Ali and Professor Antony Narula. Reviewed by Dr Maheinthan Yogeswaran. Last reviewed on 01/03/2019. Next review date 01/03/2022.

Dr Sufian Ali

Dr Sufian Ali is a Medicspot GP based in the West of Scotland, having attended Aberdeen Medical School and completed his GP training in Glasgow. He has enjoyed working in a number of specialties including paediatrics, psychiatry and emergency medicine; while also working in a variety of settings.

Professor Antony Narula

Professor Antony Narula is an otorhinolaryngologist (ENT surgeon). He practices general ENT and specialises in children with ear, nose and throat disorders and hearing problems. Antony was head of department at St Mary’s Hospital Paddington, Charing Cross Hospital, Hammersmith Hospital, and Leicester Royal Infirmary until he took early retirement in 2014 to concentrate on his medical charity work and private practice.

Notably, Antony was Past President of ENT UK and a Past President of British Society for Otology, The Association of Otolaryngologists and Young Consultant Otolaryngologists. He was also an Honorary Consultant at Chelsea & Westminster and Royal Brompton Hospitals. Recently Antony co-founded The Global Tracheostomy Collaborative, an organisation committed to improving care for all children and adults with tracheostomies.

Dr Maheinthan Yogeswaran

Dr Maheinthan Yogeswaran qualified as a doctor from Aberdeen Medical School in 2007. He subsequently trained as a GP and now works as a GP for Medicspot alongside an NHS practice in Essex. He has a wide spectrum of experience; notably in palliative care. Dr Yogeswaran also works on training future generations of GPs as a GP trainer.


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