Ear infections are common, especially in children. They cause earache and temporary hearing loss.
Ear infections usually go away on their own within a week or two, but sometimes need treatment with antibiotics. You or your child may need pain relief. Some children with repeated ear infections, where they may be causing long term problems, may have surgery.
Sometimes the ear drum can burst. This relieves the pressure and should clear up by itself after a few days. See your doctor if symptoms don’t improve, you or your child are in a lot of pain, or there is pus or fluid coming from the ear.
The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners recommend that middle ear infection (otitis media) in non-indigeneous children between the ages of 2-12 should not be treated with antibiotics unless there are signs of the child being generally unwell, such as having a fever.
For more information, speak to your doctor or visit the Choosing Wisely Australia website.
What is an ear infection?
While there are many different types of ear infection, otitis media (middle ear infection) is the most common. Babies and children are especially prone to otitis media.
The other common type is otitis externa, which is an infection of the outer ear (ear canal), which is often caused by water remaining in the canal after swimming, and is also known as swimmer’s ear.
Ear infections can be caused by either bacteria or viruses.
After an ear infection your child may have a problem hearing for two to six weeks. If the problem lasts for any longer than this, ask your doctor for advice.
Symptoms of ear infection
Symptoms can include:
- ear pain
- fever or headache
- having trouble hearing
- ears feeling plugged or full, sometimes with ringing or buzzing
- becoming dizzy or losing your balance
- nausea or vomiting.
Babies and small children might:
- pull or rub their ear
- have a high temperature (38°C or above)
- have redness around the ear
- be restless or irritable
- not respond to noises that would normally attract their attention.
Ear infection prevention
Middle ear infections often occur as a result of nasal congestion from a common cold. Otitis externa risk may be reduced by ensuring children drain water out of ears after swimming in pools, or using ear plugs if they are prone to swimmer’s ear.
Children who keep getting ear infections may need ‘grommets’ in their eardrums to prevent infection. This will be done by an ear, nose and throat specialist.
Here are some things to avoid.
- Don’t put anything into your ear, not even a cotton bud, even if your ear feels blocked or painful.
- Don’t use ear drops unless they’re prescribed by a doctor or you’ve talked to a pharmacist about them.
If the pain persists or gets worse, or if you feel sick or have a temperature, see your doctor.
Last reviewed: November 2017