Ear infections

All about ear infections

Although ear infections are particularly common in children, adults are also susceptible to these types of infections. It is important as an adult to keep a close eye on the symptoms of an ear infection as signs generally point to a more serious health problem.

What causes an ear infection?

An ear infection can be bacterial or viral and generally occurs behind the ear drum. This section of your ear is referred to as the ‘middle ear’. Causes of an ear infection can include: allergies, colds, sinus infections, excess mucus, smoking and changes in air pressure. 

Middle ear infections

Middle ear infections are commonly a result of bacteria or viruses being trapped behind the ear drum after entering the body via your mouth, eyes and nasal passages. This section of your ear will then become inflamed and typically lead to a build up of fluid inside the ear. This can be very painful for a sufferer of an ear infection and can affect the hearing temporarily.

Outer ear infections

Outer ear infections take place less frequently in adults, as this type of condition ranges from the outside of the ear drum and ear canal to the exposed opening of the ear itself. Common signs of this infection are itchy rashes on the outside of the ear and swelling of the ear or ear canal itself. Outer ear infections are caused by germs populating inside the ear canal or by objects such as cotton swabs irritating and injuring the ear canal.

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How long does an ear infection last for?

Ear infections typically clear up on their own, lasting approximately 3 days. Infections in the ear can either be chronic or acute.

Ear infections are not contagious in adults or children. However, children tend do develop symptoms of an ear infection as a result of a bad cold or other contagious viruses. These infections are contagious and can be spread from one person to another. 

Acute ear infections

Acute ear infections consist of painful symptoms that will clear up after a short period of time.

Chronic ear infections

Chronic ear infections are more serious. This type of ear infection doesn’t clear up as easily and can recur several times, meaning that it does not heal. It is important to see a doctor if symptoms of infection persist for longer than a week to prevent permanent damage to the middle ear, or in worst cases the inner ear. 

Ear infection symptoms

Children and babies

Amongst feeling pain inside the ears and a high temperature, children can often show other signs that they are suffering from an ear infection. It is important to look out for these signs:

  • Rubbing or pulling ears
  • Unresponsive to some sounds
  • Irritable or restlessness
  • Decrease in appetite
  • Loss of balance


If you are suffering from an ear infection, symptoms will begin to appear quite quickly. Symptoms may include:

  • Pain or swelling inside the ear
  • A feeling of blocked ears or added pressure
  • Nausea 
  • Fatigue
  • Increased difficulty in hearing
  • Itching and irritation in and around the ear
  • A high temperature above 38 degrees
  • Discharge or fluid coming out of the ear
  • Scaly skin appearing on the inside and outside of the ear
  • Most infections typically clear up after 3 days and do no persist longer than a week.

Ear infections treatments

Ear infections can clear up on their own after a short period of time, so a minor ear ache is not serious.

To help relieve yourself from pain and discomfort, you can treat yourself for ear infection using painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (children under 16 years old are not advised to take aspirin). Other home remedies include placing a warm or cold flannel on the ear and removing any discharge from the outside of the ear using cotton wool.

It is important to avoid getting water or soap in the ears and not to put anything inside your ear whilst infected. 

A pharmacist can provide you with ear drops if they think you are suffering from an outer ear infection. This will prevent bacteria spreading inside the ear.

Alternatively if you need to see a doctor, they can prescribe you with medicine for the ear infection depending on the cause. An inner ear infection will require antibiotics if infection does not clear up within 3 days or if your child is less than 2 years old. Outer ear infections will require ear drops or antibiotic tablets if the bacterial infection is severe.

When to see a doctor

It is important to see a doctor if your condition has not improved after 3 days, especially if newer symptoms begin to occur. You should also see a doctor if you have a long term medical condition, weakened immune system due to treatment (e.g. chemotherapy) and recurring ear infections.

During an appointment with your doctor, an ear infection can be identified by using a pneumatic otoscope which will emit a puff of air into the ear. This device is a handheld device that has a light and magnifying lens attached that a doctor typically uses to look into your ear. 

When the air is emitted into the ear, an ear infection will be diagnosed by assessing the movement of the ear drum in response to the puff of air. If it moves easily, you most likely do not have an ear infection. If it barely moves, this means that fluid is built up behind the ear drum, restricting it from movement. 

Alternatively, a doctor can check for an ear infection by simply testing your hearing, especially if they feel it may have resulted in a hearing loss. Chronic ear infections can damage your ears permanently, so it is important to pay attention and contact your local surgery if you feel that symptoms are lasting longer than 3 days or if you experience recurring infections in the ear. 

Preventing ear infections

It is vital that we take care of our ears to prevent conditions such as ear infections from occurring. Our ears are highly sensitive to noise, bacteria and viruses so it is important that we keep our ears clean and regularly get hearing health check ups.

To clean your ears, you can wash them using a cotton swab gently, ensuring to dry your ears properly after cleaning or taking a shower. Other ways to prevent infection are:

  • Washing your hands thoroughly, ensuring to avoid the spread of germs, especially from people suffering with colds or other viruses. 
  • Making sure your vaccinations are all up to date
  • Avoiding smoking yourself or second hand smoke
  • Treating your allergies by regularly taking your medication and avoiding triggers

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