Old man pressing against ear

Ear infections

Ear infections

Ear infections are very common, especially in children. Ear infection symptoms can sometimes be self-limiting and usually resolve themselves within a few days. If they do not, arrange an appointment with a healthcare practitioner.

Check if it’s an ear infection

Ear infection symptoms usually start quickly and include:
  • pain inside the ear
  • a high temperature of 38C or above
  • being sick
  • a lack of energy
  • difficulty hearing
  • discharge running out of the ear
  • a feeling of pressure or fullness inside the ear
  • itching and irritation in and around the ear
  • scaly skin in and around the ear

Young children and babies with an ear infection may also:

  • rub or pull their ear
  • not react to some sounds
  • be irritable or restless
  • be off their food
  • keep losing their balance

Most ear infections clear up within 3 days, although sometimes symptoms can last up to a week.

Differences between inner ear infection and outer ear infection

Inner ear infection (otitis media)

Caused by viruses like colds and flu
Affects the inner ear (the tube that runs behind the eardrum to the back of the nose – Eustachian tube)

Outer ear infection (otitis externa)

Caused by something irritating the ear canal, such as eczema, water or wearing earplugs
Affects the ear canal (the tube between the outer ear and the eardrum)

How to treat an ear infection yourself

To help relieve any pain and discomfort from an ear infection:
Do:
  • use painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (children under 16 should not take aspirin)
  • place a warm or cold flannel on the ear
  • remove any discharge by wiping the ear with cotton wool

Don’t:

  • do not put anything inside your ear to remove earwax, such as cotton buds or your finger
  • do not let water or shampoo get in your ear
  • do not use decongestants or antihistamines – there’s no evidence they help with ear infections

See one of our practitioners if you have:

  • a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery
  • an earache that does not start to get better after 3 days
  • swelling around the ear
  • fluid coming from the ear
  • hearing loss or a change in hearing
  • other symptoms, like being sick, a severe sore throat or dizziness
  • regular ear infections
  • a long-term medical condition – such as diabetes or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • a weakened immune system – because of chemotherapy, for example

What happens at your appointment

Our practitioner will use a small light (an otoscope) to look in the ear and conduct a full examination.
They will take other observations:
  • body temperature
  • blood pressure
  • oxygen saturation
  • heart rate and respiratory rate

Treatment

Infections inside the ear
Antibiotics might be prescribed if:
  • ear infection does not start to get better after 3 days
  • you have fluid coming out of your ear

Outer ear infections

Your practitioner may prescribe:
  • antibiotic ear drops – to treat a bacterial infection
  • steroid ear drops – to bring down swelling
  • antifungal ear drops – to treat a fungal infection
  • antibiotic tablets – if your bacterial infection is severe

Ear drops may not work if they’re not used correctly.

How to use ear drops

  1. Remove any visible discharge or earwax using cotton wool.
  2. Hold the bottle in your hand to warm it. Cold ear drops can make you feel dizzy.
  3. Lie on your side with the affected ear facing up to put the drops in.
  4. Gently pull and push your ear to work the drops in.
  5. Stay lying down for 5 minutes so the drops do not come out