How to get rid of an ear infection

What is an ear infection?

Does it feel like there’s a build-up of pressure in your head? It could be an ear infection. An ear infection occurs when one or more of your eustachian tubes (canals within the middle ear that control pressure to match the external environment) becomes swollen/inflamed or blocked. This causes fluid to build up in your middle ear leading to discomfort and or a feeling of 'fullness' in the ear.

Causes of ear infections

Inflammation, the primary driver of the symptoms associated with an ear infection, is thought to be caused following exposure to a virus or bacteria. Bacteria, like Streptococcus pneumoniae and Non-typeable Haemophilus influenzae are the two most common bacterial causes, while viruses include those that cause colds or flu.

Inflammation often begins with infections that cause sore throats, colds, or other respiratory problems, and spreads to the middle ear. Notably, it can affect both ears at the same time, exacerbating symptoms.

Symptoms

Ear infections most commonly affect children, so asking them to interpret how they’re feeling may be difficult for them to articulate. Telltale signs of an ear infection to look out for are:

  • Earache (acute, sharp pain or a dull, continuous sense of discomfort)
  • Fever
  • Sharp stabbing pains with immediate warm drainage from the ear canal
  • Irritability
  • A feeling of 'fullness' in the ear
  • Rubbing or tugging at an ear
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Nausea
  • Muffled hearing/hearing loss

Risk factors

Young children are at greater risk of developing ear infections because they have short and narrow eustachian tubes. Other potential risk factors include:

  • Changes in altitude
  • Cotton-swab usage
  • Exposure to other foreign objects within the ear
  • Climate changes
  • Recent illnesses or ear infections
  • Exposure to cigarette smoke (which can impair your immune system as well as irritate the eustachian tube and lining of the middle ear)

Treatment methods

Identifying the severity of the given infection is the first step. Your healthcare provider will examine your ears using a device called an otoscope (which has a light and magnifying lens). They will be looking for build-up of fluid within the ear itself as well as any possible perforation/damage to the eardrum.

Most ear infections will clear up without clinical intervention. Some simple strategies to use to relieve the symptoms include:

  • Applying a warm cloth to the affected ear(s)
  • Over-the-counter painkillers such as ibuprofen
  • Over-the-counter decongestants
  • Increasing your water and fluid intake
  • Plenty of rest/sleep
  • Reducing your exposure to possible irritants such as smoke exposure

Antibiotics are often not required for treating ear infections, as the body’s immune system can typically fight them off on its own. However, more severe cases, or those lasting for a prolonged period of time, may require the use of antibiotic treatment.

Doctors will either delay prescribing the use of antibiotic treatment or suggest you wait several days before you begin taking them to see if the infection clears up naturally.

Certain cases may involve a procedure to drain the middle ear of excess fluid. These cases include repeated long-term ear infections or continuous fluid build-up in the ear after an infection has cleared up.

It’s recommended that those who do suffer with repeated infections or persistent fluid build up be monitored closely by their healthcare practitioner. Discuss with them the best course of action for monitoring and how often you should visit them to reduce the risk of reoccurrence.

How to avoid ear infections

Prevention of ear infections is similar to the recommendations you would follow to avoid any kind of viral or bacterial exposure. Firstly, maintaining adequate personal hygiene (washing your hands).

Make sure you have any recommended vaccines, such as flu vaccine and, for senior citizens, pneumococcal vaccine – this protects against Streptococcus pneumoniae, a common cause of middle ear infections. In addition, avoid exposure to others who may have a virus (avoiding overly crowded areas).

Other unique recommendations to avoid ear infection occurrence or reoccurrence include not smoking and avoiding exposure to second-hand smoke (and any forms of carbon monoxide).

Our site has much more information about ear infections, possible causes, symptoms and treatments.

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