What is Ear Infection? Symptoms Causes & Treatment

What are the Causes and Treatment for Ear Infection
Medically reviewed by Dr. Mavra Farrukh


An ear infection is one of the prevalent public health problems, especially in children. According to the CDC (Centre for Disease Control and Prevention), the estimated ear infection (Acute Otitis Externa) burden was 2.4 million in the U.S. in 2007. The current prevalence rate of ear infections indeed increased. 

Ear infection can be mild enough to be treated by a simple ear cleaning but can be complicated enough to spread out to the brain and lead to complications like meningitis. 

This article is purposely written for you if you want to get complete knowledge about ear infections, their causes, and the best treatment to deal with them.

What is an ear infection?

When fluid builds up behind your eardrum, you’ve got an ear infection, which causes middle ear inflammation. A child is more likely to get an ear infection than an adult. It is estimated that every fifth child will have an ear infection by the age of three. It is scientifically known as otitis media (OM).

The middle ear’s small bones can also be damaged by repeated infection, which occurs in about 25 percent of children. When the tissue grows and blocks the eardrum, it can damage hearing or cause cholesteatoma. In most cases, this condition requires surgery.

Symptoms of an Ear Infection

You may experience ear infection symptoms very quickly. Children may display different signs and symptoms than adults. 

Symptoms of Ear infection in Adults

Common symptoms of ear infections experienced by adults are: 

  • Ear pain
  • Ear fluid drainage
  • Trouble interpreting sounds

Symptoms of Ear Infection In Children

A child’s first ear infection typically occurs before they can speak. Take a look at these signs:

  • Pulling or tugging at the ears
  • Fussiness and crying
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Young children and infants are more likely to suffer from fevers
  • The flow of fluid from the ear
  • Balance issues or clumsiness
  • Unable to hear quiet sounds or respond to them
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Types of Ear Infection 

Acute Otitis Media 

A widespread ear infection is acute otitis media (AOM). The middle ear has swelling and infection, and fluid is trapped behind the eardrum. This condition causes earaches. As a result of AOM, fever is also possible.

Otitis Media Effusion 

A fluid accumulation behind the eardrum sometimes results in otitis media with effusion (OME). When a child has OME, a doctor can detect the fluid behind the eardrum using a particular instrument, even if there are no symptoms.

Chronic Otitis Media with Effusion 

Otitis media with effusion (COME) occurs when fluid remains in the middle ear over an extended period, even though no infection is present. It can also affect children’s hearing and make it harder for them to fight new infections.

Causes ear infections

A bacterial or viral infection can cause an ear infection, like many other illnesses. Viruses can trigger ear infections once they are alive in your system, so your body often develops them along with other diseases. Following are some common causes of ear infections.

Flu or Cold

Cold temperatures allow bacteria to thrive and cause flu and colds. There is a high rate of bacterial and viral infections during the cold and flu season, setting up an ideal environment for ear infections. Because of the weather conditions, ear infections are prevalent during this time of year.

The Streptococcus Throat

A quick onset of a very sore throat is one of the hallmark symptoms of strep throat, which a group of bacteria causes. Despite this, the primary bacteria responsible for strep throat are Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenza, the leading cause of ear infections.


A safe and regular ear cleaning is essential for preventing ear infections due to this specific cause, but cleaning may not avoid all blockage-induced ear infection cases. In most cases, ear infections are caused by blockages of the eustachian tubes, which connect your ears directly to your throat. Therefore, post-nasal drip sufferers are also at a higher risk of an ear infection. 

Ear filled with fluid

Fluids sometimes trap inside the ear and cause ear infections. The reason is that the fluid stuck inside your ear acts as a medium that facilitates bacterial growth that causes ear infections. Whenever you feel fluid trapped in your ear for more than a few hours, you should contact your doctor and seek medical aid.

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What makes children more prone to ear infections?

It is more common for children to get ear infections than adults for several reasons. Following are the two main reasons that make children more susceptible to ear infections:

Eustachian tube size

Eustachian tubes connect the middle ear with the nasal cavity. You can often feel this tube popping in your ears; it drains fluid from the middle ear and protects the ear from both sounds your body produces and nasal drainage. There is a valve on this tube that opens and closes. When this tube is not opened correctly, fluid can accumulate in the ears, causing pain and pressure. Compared to adults, children’s eustachian tubes are narrower. The ear can’t generally drain fluid because of this, even under normal conditions. In the case of a cold or other respiratory illness, the eustachian tubes may become swollen or blocked with mucus.

Low Immunity   

Children’s immune systems aren’t as effective as adults’ because they are still developing. Thus, children have trouble fighting infections. The adenoids work with the immune system to fight off bacteria in the nose and mouth. In some cases, bacteria can get trapped in the adenoids, leading to a chronic infection that can spread to the eustachian tubes and the middle ear.

Complications of Ear infection 

An illness never comes alone; it brings several complications along with it.

Loss of hearing

You might experience hearing loss if you have frequent infections or if they do not heal fully. In most cases, hearing loss is temporary, with only about 2 out of every 10,000 children suffering from middle ear infections suffering permanent hearing loss. However, hearing loss can be a big problem when it happens, especially for toddlers who are learning to speak. Infections that affect both ears are even more severe. Hearing loss in young kids can delay their ability to talk and understand adults.


Meningitis can be life-threatening or lead to permanent brain damage, so it’s essential to see a doctor as soon as you have

Infection of the brain and spinal cord membranes is known as meningitis. The Streptococcus pneumoniae bacteria enter the brain-protecting layer, i.e., the meninges, and cause meningitis. Symptoms of meningitis include headaches, fever, and nausea in adults and children over age two. While crying constantly, infants may seem fatigued, or their bodies and necks may feel stiff. Antibiotics are frequently administered for up to 21 days during hospitalization.


As a mild infection, mastoiditis can develop into something more serious. Children who have repeated ear infections are most likely to develop mastoiditis. Swollen earlobes and redness behind the ear are some of the symptoms. Other serious complications can occur if treatment options don’t work, such as hearing loss, meningitis, and brain abscesses.

Brain Abscess

A brain abscess can occur due to infection when pus gathers in the brain. It is characterized by fever, nausea, vomiting, headache, and difficulties with consciousness. The diagnosis is usually made by examining the brain and nervous system, specifically looking for fluid collections in the brain. Surgery and antibiotics are often used in combination to treat brain abscesses. In the past half-century, the chances of surviving have improved considerably. Over the past year, the recovery rate has increased from 33 percent to 70 percent.

Facial Paralysis 

Facial paralysis is where one side of your face cannot move due to an infection of the facial nerve, which runs through the ear. The use of antibiotics has made this less common. The prevalence of this condition is one in 2,000 cases of this condition. The majority of people who experience this complication will recover fully.

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Diagnoses of middle ear infection

To diagnose, the doctor will ask you about their health. An otoscope, a lighted instrument used to look at the eardrum, is the simplest way a doctor can tell if there is an infection in the ear. An infected eardrum has a red, bulging appearance.

A pneumatic otoscope, which blows air into the ear canal, can also detect fluid behind the eardrum. Fluid behind an eardrum makes it harder to move back and forth.

In cases where the diagnosis still isn’t precise, doctors may use tympanometry. There is a device called a tympano-meter that is a small, soft plug with a speaker and a microphone for measuring air pressure inside the ear. Depending on the pressure, the eardrum’s flexibility is determined.

Research on Middle Ear Infections

National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD) scientists investigate many ways to prevent, diagnose, and treat middle ear infections. To effectively prevent ear infections, researchers could find a way to identify children at risk. Moreover, it is important to investigate why some children have more ear infections than others. Ear infections are more prevalent among Native American and Hispanic children than among other ethnic groups. Researchers are also learning more about what happens inside human ears when they suffer from recurring ear infections. During the research, the researchers found that most chronic ear infections in children are caused by colonies of antibiotic-resistant bacteria called biofilms. Chronic ear infections can be effectively treated and avoided by attacking and killing biofilms. The impact of ear infections is also a major factor in speech and language development in children. More accurate diagnostic methods could help doctors prescribe better treatment for middle ear infections. Aside from evaluating current treatments for ear infections, researchers are also developing more effective and accessible ways of administering drugs.

Researchers supported by the NIDCD are exploring vaccines against non-typeable Haemophilus influenza (NTHI) and Moraxella catarrhalis, which cause middle ear infections.

Treatment for Ear infection

An ear infection’s severity, duration, and age determine the treatment.

You can get Tylenol (acetaminophen), Advil (ibuprofen), or Motrin (acetaminophen) over-the-counter to ease pain and manage fever. It is not recommended to give ibuprofen to babies younger than 6 months without consulting your doctor.

A doctor may prescribe an antibiotic if the pain or symptoms are severe or if the symptoms worsen over time, such as 

  • Moxatag 
  • Amoxil (amoxicillin).

Ear Tube Surgical Insertion 

For some children, they are an option. It is also possible for adults to receive ear tubes, but it is not shared. The most commonly prescribed type is used if your kid gets recurrent ear infections (three or more times in six months), has fluid in their ears for long periods, or has a collapsed eardrum. An ear tube is a small, cylindrical tube that is surgically inserted into the eardrum to drain fluid and stabilize air pressure. As the child’s ear grows, the tubes naturally fall out.

Home Remedies 

Here are some remedies that can be helpful in mild ear infections as they can deal with symptoms like sudden earache, extended ear pressure, etc.

  • Hot or Cold Compress

If you are experiencing pain in your affected ear, you can relieve it by placing a hot or cold pack on it. Wrap the pack in a thin cloth to prevent it from getting too hot or cold. It is recommended that you choose a temperature that is comfortable for you.

  • Alternating sleeping positions

You should place two or more pillows above your affected ear. Sleep on the opposite ear if you sleep on your side. These two techniques will relieve some of your ear pressure. Although this home remedy won’t completely cure your earache, it can help you avoid discomfort in the morning.

Homeopathic Medications for an Ear Infection

It is possible to treat ear infections with classical homeopathy in various ways. Despite its effectiveness, the U.S. Food & Drug Administration (FDA) cannot regulate homeopathic medicine. It is common for remedies to combine natural substances with synthetic compounds to enhance their therapeutic properties. To avoid severe side effects, choose the correct dosage with caution.

The following are some homeopathic remedies known for treating the symptoms of ear infections:

  • Ferrum phosphoricum
  • Belladonna (Atropa belladonna)
  • Wolfsbane (Aconitum napellus).
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When Do I Need to See a Doctor?

If you observe any symptoms like an earache, fluid-trapped sensation, or fever, it is time to consult a doctor and get medical attention.

Doctors may examine your ear, and after examination, they will be able to give a diagnosis.

Once you have an accurate diagnosis, the doctor will prescribe medication or other appropriate treatment based on the severity of your ear infection. To get the best treatment, you can seek medical help from Your Doctors Online experts. They will not only perform a systematic diagnosis but will also assist in the treatment of ear infections as soon as possible.

FAQs About Ear Infection Answered by Your Doctors Online Team

Is an ear infection bacterial or viral?

It is impossible to tell whether a virus or bacteria causes infection without culturing the fluid behind the eardrum. Some red flags that an ear infection might be bacterial include:
1. Long-term ear infections 
2. Fever, significantly worsening fever

What is the average duration of an ear infection?

It is common for ear infections to resolve within a few days without antibiotic treatment. Do not hesitate to contact your doctor if your symptoms don’t improve or worsen.

What are the alternatives to antibiotics for treating ear infections?

Most ear infections resolve without antibiotic therapy within a few days. Doctors often recommend a “watchful waiting” strategy before prescribing antibiotics for ear infections.

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