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.
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
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.
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?
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:
The middle ear includes the:
The inner ear includes the:
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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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?
Signs of a middle ear infection in adults include:
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 can include:
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:
Other labyrinthitis symptoms can include:
Ear infection complications are rare but may include:
You should see a doctor if:
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?
Ear infection treatments depend on what part of the ear is infected.
Middle ear infection treatments can include:
Outer ear infection treatments can include:
Inner ear infection treatments can include:
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:
How to clear an ear infection with ear drops:
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.
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 infection medicine can include:
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.
Pain relief for adults can include:
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:
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?
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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?
Different types of ear infections are caused by different microorganisms:
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.
You’re more at risk of an ear infection if you:
You can keep getting ear infections if you:
It’s difficult to prevent inner ear infections. However, you can reduce the risk of developing a middle or outer infection if you:
Tips to prevent dizziness include:
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 can include:
There a few signs to look out for that indicate your child is having hearing problems. Your child may:
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.
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.
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 toddlers depends on the type of infection they may have. For:
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:
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.
Depending on the type of infection, ear infections usually get better on their own within:
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.
You should see a doctor if your child has:
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.
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:
You can help to prevent outer ear infections in children by:
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?
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:
Always seek medical attention if concerned about your baby’s health.
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.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends taking your baby to see a doctor if they have:
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.
You can help prevent an ear infection in your baby by:
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?
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.
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.
You should see a GP if:
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?
This photo shows a dull ear drum with inflammation. There is no perforation of the eardrum.
This picture shows an inflamed outer ear canal with discharge.
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?
Infected ear piercing symptoms can include:
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.
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.
We’re on a mission to make healthcare more accessible and convenient. We have over 70 private doctor clinics across the UK - simply find your nearest one and see a private GP today.
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?