Most people will have had an ear infection at some point in their lives – it’s very common. Most cases can resolve on their own within three days, but we’d always recommend seeing your GP or pharmacist if your symptoms are bothering you.
Symptoms of an ear infection
Symptoms in adults can come on quite quickly and can include any of the following, depending on where the ear infection is:
- Inflammation and pain in the ear
- Tender to touch
- Ear swelling
- Hearing loss
- Feeling or being sick
- Feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear
- Pus-like discharge from the ear
- High temperature or fever
Ear infection symptoms in children
The main symptoms of an ear infection to look out for in children include:
- a temperature
- issues with balance
- changes in speech and language
- mild-to-moderate temporary hearing loss
- liquid or pus discharge
- rubbing or pulling their ear
Some of these symptoms, or a combination of them, may help to determine the specific type of ear infection your child may have, so it’s important to mention anything you’ve noticed to your GP when you take them in for an appointment.
One type of ear infection in particular — otitis media with effusion (OME), or glue ear — may slow down the speech and language development of your child if they get it a lot.⁵ The symptoms for this type of ear infection may not include an earache, but you may notice subtle developmental or behavioural changes which can suggest hearing loss.6 Learn more about glue ear here.
Common risk factors for ear infections
Some adults may be at greater risk of developing ear infections if they:
- Are keen swimmers
- Wear hearing aids and/or use earbuds
- Have low immunity and catch colds and the flu easily
- Have skin conditions like eczema or psoriasis
- Live in poor living conditions
- Have a family history of ear infections
Risk factors for ear infections in children
Ear infections are quite common in children, with around 8 in 10 getting an ear infection before their third birthday and 30-45% of these children getting more than one infection.1 Children tend to be more at risk of infection as their immune systems and bodies are still developing, but these factors can also make children more likely to get ear infections:
- If their vaccinations are not up to date
- If they use a bottle or dummy
- Attending childcare services, or having siblings
- Having asthma
- Passive smoke exposure⁴
- Poor hygiene and hand washing
- Family history
Why do children get more ear infections than adults?
The short answer is that children are more likely than adults to get ear infections because their bodies are still developing.
In babies and toddlers, for example, the Eustachian tube (a passageway that bridges the upper part of the throat and middle ear) is so tiny and horizontal that it can be difficult for air to enter the middle ear easily. This can create pressure and cause fluid to build up — causing ear infections.
Winter can be a particularly common time for children to get ear infections. Ear infections can develop at a faster rate in winter because the common cold, enlarged tonsils, or asthma can all create blockages to this passageway.2,3
Types of ear infection
It’s important to know which type of ear infection you have so that you can seek out the right treatment. Some ear infections can lead to further problems. Your GP will be able to advise you on the type you have, but here are the main types of ear infections.
Outer ear infection
The outer ear is the part that is visible on your head and stops at your eardrum. An outer ear infection is inflammation of the skin lining your ear canal.
Symptoms of an outer ear infection include:
- Mild hearing loss
Middle ear infection
This is probably the most common type of ear infection, particularly in children, and is caused by an infection or inflammation in the part of the ear behind the eardrum. It’s often associated with earache and fever in children.
It’s known to develop quite quickly (like after a cold) and usually resolves itself without any need for treatment.
Inner ear infection
This type of ear infection is rare and affects the intricate, inner structures of the ear involved in hearing and balance.
People tend to experience dizziness, problems with balance, tinnitus, nausea and vomiting, hearing loss to one ear, fullness in the ear and sometimes a fever.
If you experience hearing loss to one ear, we recommend that you visit your local A&E department.
Common causes of ear infections
Ear infections can be caused by different things depending on where the infection is localised. Usually, an infection of the ear will either be an outer ear infection (otitis externa) or a middle ear infection (otitis media) and these will be often caused either by bacteria or by a virus.
What causes outer ear infections?
This type of ear infection is usually caused by bacteria, but it can also be caused by fungus. In an outer ear infection, the ear canal is affected, becoming inflamed and red. Sometimes, your ear may also ooze a liquid, which can cause blockages in the ear canal.
These usually happen due to bacteria getting into a small cut or scrape inside the ear canal, but it can also be caused by irritation of the canal by in-ear headphones or cotton buds, for example.
Outer ear infections are often referred to as swimmer’s ear as bacteria can easily get into your ear canal while you’re swimming, and a warm and wet environment (such as your ear canal) is the ideal place for bacteria to multiply. Other risk factors include having a narrow ear canal, smoking, sinusitis, having a skin condition like psoriasis or eczema or being diabetic.
What causes middle ear infections?
Middle ear infections affect the Eustachian tubes. Eustachian tubes are the small tubes that go from each ear to the back of the throat. They’re responsible for allowing air to flow into the middle ear cavity, as well as removing any fluid or debris that can accumulate in the middle ear. When these tubes become blocked or swollen, it can lead to a fluid build-up in the area behind the eardrum (middle ear).
This can happen after you’ve had a cold, or can be due to bacteria or a virus that has made its way into these tubes. Allergies and sinus infections can also cause the Eustachian tubes to swell.
Children are especially susceptible to these types of infections because they have tiny Eustachian tubes and a delicate immune system. Children who are not vaccinated and attend childcare are
particularly at risk for these infections.
What can cause inner ear infection (labyrinthitis)?
Less common than the other types of ear infection, labyrinthitis affects important structures in the ear that are responsible for your hearing and balance. This type of ear infection is often caused by a viral or bacterial infection which has found its way to the inner structures of your ear.
Adults with viral infections such as bronchitis, stomach viruses or herpes, are at greater risk of developing labyrinthitis.
Treatment for ear infections
Treatment options will vary according to where in the ear the infection is, what’s causing it, and the extent of the infection. Generally, your GP might prescribe any of the following:
- Ear drops
- Pain relief medication
- Anti-sickness tablets (if you have an inner ear infection)
How long will an ear infection take to clear up?
The time it takes for an infection to clear will depend on the type and extent of the ear infection you have.
Typically, it can take between two days to a week to resolve, with more severe cases lasting for several weeks.
Prevention of ear infections
There are a few things you can do to reduce your chances of getting an ear infection, and the same applies to children too, although it’s important to note that you can’t always prevent them.
- Make sure you’re up to date with your vaccinations. It’s a good idea to get children vaccinated against flu every year, especially for toddlers that attend childcare⁶
- Don’t try to clean your ears with your fingers or using cotton buds
- Make sure you dry your ears after a shower or going swimming
- Try to cover your ears when you go swimming (with a swimming cap, or using ear plugs)
- Avoid exposure to smoky environments as it increases the risk of infection
- Good hygiene including regular hand washing to prevent the spread of germs and limit the risk of catching a cold - especially in children
- For children, avoid letting young children fall asleep with a bottle or dummy. It may cause pressure changes in the Eustachian tube, encouraging ear infection⁷
- As much as possible, limit your exposure to other sick people, especially in children and keep them at home when they’re ill
An ear infection usually clears up on its own, but if you don’t see a change in your child’s condition after three days, we’d recommend seeing your GP. Medicines, like paracetamol or ibuprofen, are not usually recommended, but your GP may prescribe a course of ear drops or antibiotics.
If you’re concerned about yours or your child’s hearing, visit one of our stores for a free hearing test. Find your closest Specsavers hearing specialist by typing your postcode into our handy store finder here. You can also try our free online hearing test if you’re curious to see how good your hearing is.
- Leung AKC, Wong AHC. Acute Otitis Media in Children. Recent Pat Inflamm Allergy Drug Discov. 2017;11(1):32-40. doi:10.2174/1874609810666170712145332
- Knopke S, Böttcher A, Chadha P, Olze H, Bast F. Seasonal differences of tympanogram and middle ear findings in children. Saisonale Unterschiede von Tympanogramm- und Mittelohrbefund bei Kindern. HNO. 2017;65(Suppl 1):68-72. doi:10.1007/s00106-016-0288-6
- Yiengprugsawan V, Hogan A. Ear infection and its associated risk factors, comorbidity, and health service use in Australian children. Int J Pediatr. 2013;2013:963132. doi:10.1155/2013/963132
- Hawkins SS, Hristakeva S, Gottlieb M, Baum CF. Reduction in emergency department visits for children's asthma, ear infections, and respiratory infections after the introduction of state smoke-free legislation. Prev Med. 2016;89:278-285. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.06.005
- Price J. Otitis externa in children. J R Coll Gen Pract. 1976;26(169):610-615
- Norhayati MN, Ho JJ, Azman MY. Influenza vaccines for preventing acute otitis media in infants and children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2017;10(10):CD010089. Published 2017 Oct 17. doi:10.1002/14651858.CD010089.pub3
- Brown CE, Magnuson B. On the physics of the infant feeding bottle and middle ear sequela: ear disease in infants can be associated with bottle feeding. Int J Pediatr Otorhinolaryngol. 2000;54(1):13-20. doi:10.1016/s0165-5876(00)00330-x