Otitis (ear infection)

Ear infections are one of the most common types of ear diseases and can affect the outer, middle or inner ear. 

If you’ve had an ear infection, you will know just how painful they can be, and that is due to a build-up of fluid and inflammation in the middle ear. Ear infections can be acute, which are usually only short-term but very painful or chronic which can cause permanent damage to the middle ear and can either recur many times or don’t clear up.

Types of ear infection

There are several types of ear infection, including:


  • Middle ear infection (otitis media): This can occur when either bacteria or a virus causes inflammation behind the eardrum. Most middle ear infections will go away without medication
  • Acute otitis media: This type of ear infection will come on suddenly and includes redness and inflammation inside the ear, behind and around the eardrum
  • Otitis media with effusion: Sometimes fluid and mucus will continue to build-up in the middle ear, even after the initial infection appears to go away. This is known as otitis media with effusion. It can make your ear feel full and affect your hearing
  • Otitis externa: Causes inflammation of the external ear canal. Often referred to as swimmer's ear because repeated water exposure can make the ear canal more vulnerable to inflammation

What causes an ear infection?

An ear infection can occur when one of your Eustachian tubes becomes blocked or swollen which causes fluid to build up in your middle ear. Your Eustachian tubes run from each ear directly to the back of the throat. A Eustachian tube can become blocked as a result of:

  • Head cold
  • Allergies
  • Sinus infection
  • Excess mucus
  • Smoking
  • Changes in air pressure
  • Swollen or infected adenoids

What are the symptoms of ear infections?

Some of the most common ear infection symptoms are:

  • Pain inside the ear
  • A high temperature
  • Being sick
  • Lethargic
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Discharge out of the ear
  • A feeling of fullness or pressure inside the ear
  • Irritation and itching in and around the ear
  • Flaky skin in and around the ear

These symptoms can occur in one or both ears and can either come and go or may persist. You will likely experience more severe pain if you have an infection in both ears. Symptoms of a chronic ear infection are often less noticeable than symptoms of an acute ear infection.

How are ear infections treated?

Most mild ear infections don’t require ear infection treatment and will clear up on their own without any intervention. But there are some things you can do to reduce any pain or discomfort you may experience:

  • Place a warm cloth on the affected ear
  • Take pain relief medication
  • Use soothing ear drops

If you find that your symptoms don’t improve or they seem to have got worse, it’s a good idea to get checked out by your doctor. They may prescribe you a course of antibiotics if the infection doesn’t seem to be improving. If antibiotics or other medical treatments don’t clear the infection or if you find that you have many ear infections over a short period, it may be recommended that you have surgery to drain the fluid.

How to prevent ear infections

Not all ear infections can be prevented, but there are some simple things you can do to help reduce your chance of getting an ear infection in the future. For example:

  • Ensure you promptly treat any conditions that affect your ears such as eczema or ear wax build-up
  • Never put anything into your ears such as your fingers or cotton swabs
  • Try to avoid getting water in your ears when you swim by wearing earplugs or a swimming hat over your ears
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Stay away from second-hand smoke

If you are concerned about your ears or think you may have an ear infection, schedule a consultation with your hearing care professional or doctor for an examination and treatment plan.

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