Ear infections

Ear infections are very common, particularly in children. See your GP if they don’t settle in a couple of days.

Check if it’s an ear infection

The symptoms of an ear infection usually start quickly and include:

  • pain inside the ear
  • a high temperature of 38C or above
  • being sick
  • a lack of energy
  • difficulty hearing
  • discharge running out of the ear
  • feeling of pressure or fullness inside the ear
  • itching and irritation in and around the ear
  • scaly skin in and around the ear

Young children and babies with an ear infection may also:

  • rub or pull their ear
  • not react to some sounds
  • be irritable or restless
  • be off their food
  • keep losing their balance
Differences between inner ear infection and outer ear infection
Inner ear infection (otitis media) Outer ear infection (otitis externa)
Usually affect children Usually affect adults aged 45 to 75
Caused by viruses like colds and flu Caused by something irritating the ear canal, such as eczema, wearing ear plugs or water
Affects the inner ear (the tube that runs behind the eardrum to the back of the nose - Eustachian tube) Affects the ear canal (the tube between the outer ear and the eardrum)

How to treat an ear infection yourself

Most ear infections pass in 2 or 3 days, depending on what’s causing it.

To help relieve any pain and discomfort from an ear infection:

Do

  • use painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen (children under 16 shouldn’t take aspirin)
  • place a warm or cold flannel on the ear
  • remove any discharge by wiping the ear with cotton wool

Don’t

  • put anything inside your ear to remove earwax, such as cotton buds or your finger
  • let water or shampoo get in your ear

Your pharmacist can help with an ear infection

Speak to your pharmacist if you think you have an outer ear infection. They can recommend acidic ear drops to help stop bacteria or fungus spreading.

See a GP if you or your child has:

  • a high temperature of 38C or above
  • a severe earache for more than 3 days
  • swelling around the ear
  • pus coming from the ear
  • something stuck in the ear
  • hearing loss or a change in hearing
  • other symptoms, like vomiting, a severe sore throat or dizziness
  • regular ear infections

Book a GP appointment online

What happens at your appointment

Your GP will often use a small light (an otoscope) to look into the ear.

Some otoscopes blow a small puff of air into the ear. This checks for blockages, which could be a sign of an infection.

Treatment from your GP

Your GP may prescribe medicine for your ear infection, it depends what’s caused it.

For inner ear infections

Antibiotics aren’t always recommended for an inner ear infections as they often clear up on their own. They might be prescribed if you or your child:

  • has an ear infection that doesn’t get better
  • is under 2
  • has an illness that means there’s a risk of complications, such as cystic fibrosis

For outer ear infections

Your GP might prescribe:

  • antibiotic ear drops - to treat a bacterial infection
  • steroid ear drops - to bring down swelling
  • antifungal ear drops - to treat a fungal infection
  • antibiotic tablets - if your bacterial infection is severe

If you have a spot or boil in your ear, your GP may pierce it with a needle to drain the pus.

Ear drops may not work if they’re not used in the right way.

How to use ear drops
  1. Remove any visible discharge or earwax using cotton wool.
  2. Hold the bottle in your hand to warm it - cold ear drops can make you feel dizzy.
  3. Lie on your side with the affected ear facing up to put the drops in.
  4. Gently pull and push your ear to work the drops in.
  5. Stay lying down for 5 minutes so the drops don’t come out.

Preventing ear infections

You can’t always prevent ear infections, particularly inner ear infections caused by colds and flu.

To help avoid inner ear infections:

  • make sure your child is up-to-date with vaccinations
  • keep your child away from smoky environments
  • try not to give your child a dummy after they’re 6 months old

To help avoid outer ear infections:

  • don’t stick cotton wool buds or your fingers in your ears
  • use ear plugs or a swimming hat over your ears when you swim
  • try to avoid water or shampoo getting into your ears when you shower or bath
  • treat conditions that affect your ears, such as eczema or an allergy to hearing aids

Call 111

If you can’t speak to your GP or don’t know what to do next.