What is an ear infection?

An ear infection is an inflammation and/or fluid buildup in the Eustachian tubes that connect your throat to your eardrums. An ear infection often occurs during a cold or throat infection when germs enter the middle ear via the Eustachian tubes and start growing.

Ear infections are the most common diagnosis in a pediatrician’s office and account for more than 30 million doctor visits yearly in the U.S. If left untreated, ear infections can lead to major complications including hearing loss.

Common Cold (Upper Respiratory Infection) Sinusitis

Causes of ear infection

Ear infection is most commonly caused by a virus or bacteria, typically resulting from existing cold, flu or allergy infection. Mucus congestion from your nose and throat can easily block the Eustachian tubes, causing fluid to get trapped in your ear.

Risk factors for ear infection

Risk factors for ear infection are:

  • Age — children are more susceptible to ear infections due to the size and shape of their Eustachian tubes.
  • Upper respiratory infection — most ear infections accompany cold and flu.
  • Altitude — changes experienced during flying or driving can cause an imbalance of pressure and liquid in your Eustachian tubes.

Chronic ear infections are most common in:

  • Boys
  • Those with a family history of ear infections
  • Bottle-fed babies
  • Infants or children in daycare facilities
  • People with weak immune systems
  • People living in or around smoke (smokers)

Symptoms of ear infection

Symptoms of an ear infection present differently in children and adults.

Symptoms of ear infections in adults

  • Ear pain
  • Fluid drainage from ear
  • Muffled or difficult hearing
  • Nausea
  • Full feeling in ear
  • Stabbing pain with warm discharge from ear

Symptoms of ear infections in children

  • Poor sleep
  • Fussiness
  • Crying at night after lying down for a period
  • Decreased appetite
  • Fever
  • Ear tugging

Diagnosis of ear infection

An ear infection is diagnosed in a physical exam with your primary care provider or pediatrician (for your child) who will look at your nose, throat and ears to check for fluid behind the eardrum.

Treatments for ear infection

Ear infections can improve within a couple days without treatment. If a bacterial infection is suspected, ear infections should be treated with antibiotics.

If your ear infection is caused by a viral infection, symptomatic treatment includes:

  • Pain reliever such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen
  • Warm compress on your ear
  • Decongestants — over-the-counter or prescription dependent on severity of symptoms

If your child has chronic ear infections, your doctor may recommend a surgical procedure called a myringotomy, where tiny tubes are placed in the middle ear to help ventilate the area.

Recovery from ear infection

Most ear infections will improve within days and completely clear up in a week. Even after symptoms are gone, you should complete the full dose of antibiotic treatment if prescribed for a bacterial ear infection.

Worsening or recurring ear infections can cause permanent damage to your ears and might require intervention from an ENT specialist.

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