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Ear infection

3-minute read

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 2, 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 is 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 to 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.

Symptoms of ear infection

Symptoms can include:

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

See your doctor if:

  • your child is in pain
  • there is discharge from the child's ear
  • your child is unwell or vomiting
  • your child can't hear properly
  • there is swelling behind the ear and the ear is being pushed forward
  • your child keeps getting ear infections

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. These are small plastic tubes surgically placed in the ear drum to allow air into the middle ear. 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.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: December 2019

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