Ear Infections

What is an ear infection?

Ear infections can affect the ear canal, the middle ear(sections of your ear just behind the eardrum), and the inner ear. A middle ear infection occurs when bacteria or viruses infect the Eustachian tube, a small drainage tube that runs from the ear to the back of the throat. When this tube is blocked or inflamed, fluid may build up within the middle ear. An outer ear infection occurs when the lining of the ear canal becomes inflamed or infected by bacteria, viruses, or a fungus. The inner ear controls your balance and hearing, and when the inner ear gets infected or inflamed, it can cause a type of balance disorder known as labyrinthitis. Labyrinthitis not only can affect your hearing, but it can make you feel dizzy, and can even cause something more severe, such as vertigo, which is a sudden feeling that you or your head is spinning.


What are the symptoms of an ear infection?

The symptoms of an ear infection in adults are:

  • Earache (either a sharp, sudden pain or a dull, continuous pain)
  • A sharp stabbing pain with immediate warm drainage from the ear canal
  • A feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Nausea
  • Muffled hearing and
  • Ear drainage

In children, the symptoms are:

  • Tugging at the ear
  • Poor sleep
  • Fever
  • Irritability, restlessness
  • Ear drainage
  • Diminished appetite
  • Crying when lying down and
  • Stiff neck


What causes an ear infection?

  • Bacteria like those that cause strep throat and sinus infections
  • Viruses like those that cause colds and flu
  • Respiratory infection
    • Middle ear infections often occur after a respiratory infection.
  • Injury to the ear
  • Foreign objects, like cotton swabs and bobby pins, can cause cuts and bruises in the ear canal that can get infected.
  • Cigarette smoke
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke can lead to more colds and more ear infections.
  • Family history
  • The tendency to develop ear infections can run in families.


How is an ear infection prevented?

Although ear infections are not contagious, the bacteria and viruses that cause them are. Here’s how you can prevent an ear infection:

  • Ensure your child is up to date on vaccinations, as several childhood vaccinations protect against infections from bacteria that often cause ear infections.  
  • Ensure you and your child get a flu vaccine every year.
  • Avoid putting foreign objects in the ear.
  • Avoid smoking and exposure to secondhand smoke.


How is an ear infection treated?

Different treatments are available depending on the type of ear infection.

  • Otitis Externa is the scientific name for an infection of the ear canal, which also is called swimmer’s ear. This is usually treated with antibiotic or prescription ear drops.
  • Otitis Media occurs when fluid builds up in the middle ear and is often caused by bacteria or viruses. This may not need antibiotics in many cases because the body’s immune system can fight off the infection without help from antibiotics; however, sometimes antibiotics are needed.
  • Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can be used to relieve pain or fever. Ask your healthcare professional or pharmacist what medications are safe for you or your child to take.
  • Antibiotics, such as amoxicillin, are often used to treat severe ear infections or ear infections that last longer than 2–3 days.


If you think you have an ear infection, you can come into any Patient First center from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. any day of the week – no appointment needed.