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Ear infections

Ear infections are very common, particularly in children. You do not always need to see a GP for an ear infection as they often get better on their own within 3 days.

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

Young children and babies with an ear infection may also:

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

Differences between inner, middle and outer ear infections

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 – there's no evidence they help with ear infections

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

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

What happens at your appointment

The GP will often use a small light (an 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.

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

Infections inside the ear

Antibiotics are not usually offered because infections inside the ear often clear up on their own and 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 the 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

The GP might prescribe:

  • antibiotic eardrops – to treat a bacterial infection
  • steroid eardrops – to bring down swelling
  • antifungal eardrops – to treat a fungal infection
  • antibiotic tablets – if your bacterial infection is severe

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

Eardrops may not work if they're not used correctly.

How to use eardrops
  1. Remove any visible discharge or earwax using cotton wool.
  2. Hold the bottle in your hand to warm it. Cold eardrops 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 do not come out.

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 earplugs 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