An ear infection is an infection of the middle ear. The middle ear is the space behind the eardrum that is filled with air. An ear infection can also be called acute otitis media.
Signs and symptoms
Common signs and symptoms for children include:
- Ear pain, especially when lying down
- Tugging or pulling at an ear
- Trouble sleeping
- Crying more than usual
- Trouble hearing or responding to sounds
- Loss of balance
- Fever greater than 100 degrees F
- Drainage of fluid from the ear
- Loss of appetite
Common signs and symptoms for adults:
- Ear pain
- Drainage of fluid from the ear
- Trouble hearing
When there is bacteria or a virus in the middle ear, an ear infection can occur. Often it occurs when there is another illness like a cold, flu or allergy that causes congestion and swelling of the nasal passages and eustachian tubes. When the eustachian tubes are swollen or blocked, fluids can build up in the middle ear and cause an ear infection.
Age – Children between six months and two years are more susceptible to ear infections. This is because the eustachian tubes have a different size and shape since they are still developing.
Group child care – Children who are in group settings are more likely to get ear infections because they are exposed to more infections when surrounded by other children.
Bottle fed babies – Babies who are fed from a bottle are more likely to develop ear infections than breastfed babies.
Seasonal factors – During the winter and fall months, ear infections are more common. People who are susceptible to allergies are also at a higher risk for developing ear infections when pollen counts are high.
- Some infections can improve within a few days of symptoms and don't need antibiotics to resolve. If the pain is not very intense, it is suggested to wait and see if symptoms improve without needing specific medical treatment
- Over-the-counter pain medication can be taken to help relieve pain. These include acetaminophen or ibuprofen
- Anesthetic drops can also be used to relieve pain
- Antibiotics might be prescribed by a provider for severe pain, fevers, etc. It is important to take the full antibiotic dose as directed even if symptoms improve to prevent recurring infections and bacterial resistance to the antibiotic
- Chronic infections of the ear may indicate treatment using ear tubes. This is a procedure done to drain fluid from the middle ear. Tubes can stay in place up to 18 months or fall out on their own
When to seek care
You should seek care if symptoms don't improve after a few days. you should also seek treatment if there is severe pain that is not relieved with over-the-counter medication.
- Preventing common colds and other illnesses is the best prevention for ear infections since they are often related to the development of ear infections. Washing your hands frequently, coughing and sneezing into your elbow, limiting exposure to sick people, and staying home when you are sick are all good ways to prevent getting an illness
- Avoid secondhand smoke when possible. This can cause inflammation of the airway and in turn Eustachian tubes, which can cause an ear infection
- Get vaccinations as indicated by your provider. These include seasonal flu shots and other vaccines
Nebraska Medicine University Health Center offers services to help prevent and treat ear infections. Appointments are required. Call 402.472.5000 to schedule a visit. Learn more about hours.