Ear infections

Ear infections are very common, particularly in children.

You do not always need to see a GP for an ear infection. They often get better on their own within 3 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 38 degrees Celsius or above
  • being sick
  • a lack of energy
  • difficulty hearing
  • discharge running out of the ear
  • a 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

Most ear infections clear up within 3 days, although sometimes symptoms can last up to a week.

Differences between middle ear infection and outer ear infection

Middle ear infection (otitis media) Outer ear infection (otitis externa)
Middle ear infection (otitis media) Usually affects children Outer ear infection (otitis externa) Usually affects adults aged 45 to 75
Middle ear infection (otitis media) Caused by viruses like colds and flu Outer ear infection (otitis externa) Caused by something irritating the ear canal, such as eczema, water or wearing ear plugs
Middle ear infection (otitis media) Affects the middle ear (the tube that runs behind the eardrum to the back of the nose – Eustachian tube) Outer ear infection (otitis externa) Affects the ear canal (the tube between the outer ear and the eardrum)

How to treat an ear infection yourself

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

Do

  • use painkillers such as paracetamol or ibuprofen. Children under 16 should not take aspirin

  • place a warm or cold flannel on the ear

  • remove any discharge by wiping the ear with cotton wool

Don't

  • do not put anything inside your ear to remove earwax, such as cotton buds or your finger

  • do not let water or shampoo get in your ear

  • do not use decongestants or antihistamines – they don't help with ear infections

A pharmacist can help with an ear infection

Talk to a pharmacist if you think you have an outer ear infection.

They can recommend acidic ear drops to help stop bacteria or fungus spreading.

Non-urgent advice: See a GP if

you or your child have:

  • a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery
  • earache that does not start to get better after 3 days
  • swelling around the ear
  • fluid coming from the ear
  • hearing loss or a change in hearing
  • other symptoms, like being sick, a severe sore throat or dizziness
  • regular ear infections
  • a long-term medical condition. For example, diabetes or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
  • a weakened immune system – for example, because of chemotherapy

What happens at your appointment

Your GP will often use a small light (otoscope) to look in 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 a GP

Your GP may prescribe medicine for your ear infection, depending on what's caused it.

Infections in the middle ear

Infections in the middle ear (behind the ear drum) often clear up on their own. Antibiotics make little difference to symptoms, including pain.

Antibiotics might be prescribed if:

  • an ear infection does not start to get better after 3 days
  • you or your child has any fluid coming out of their ear
  • you or your child has an illness that means there's a risk of complications, such as cystic fibrosis

They may also be prescribed if your child is less than 2 years old and has an infection in both ears.

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 correctly.

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.

Stay lying down for 5 minutes so the drops do not come out.

Preventing ear infections

You cannot 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:

  • do not 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 have a shower or bath
  • treat conditions that affect your ears, such as eczema or an allergy to hearing aids


Content supplied by the NHS and adapted for Ireland by the HSE

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.

Page last reviewed: 22 December 2020
Next review due: 22 December 2023