What Are Symptoms of an Ear Infection?

Ear Infections
Ear Infections. Stockbyte / Getty Images

Question: What Are Symptoms of an Ear Infection?

Middle Ear infections, also called otitis media, are one of the most prevalent ENT disorders. They occur when germs become trapped inside the middle ear. The auditory tube (sometimes called theĀ  eustachian tube), a tiny tube that originates in the ear and drains in to the back of the throat, usually keeps unwanted germs out and keeps the middle ear space properly ventilated.

If this tube is too small or becomes clogged by fluid and mucus, bacteria or other microbes may be able to grow and thrive, causing an infection. Since the auditory tube is naturally smaller and more horizontal in children than in adults children are more prone to middle ear infections.

Some children may be even more prone to developing middle ear infections including those who are exposed to second hand smoke or children with untreated allergies.


There are many symptoms of an ear infection, and they vary between individuals. Some individuals may suffer from many or all of the symptoms on our list while others may only have a few. Symptoms usually come on quickly. Here are some general indications that you may have an ear infection.

  • recent history of an upper respiratory infection or cold
  • a history of allergies
  • pain and pressure in one or both ears
  • fever
  • loss of balance or feeling dizzy
  • difficulty hearing or sudden hearing loss
  • nausea and vomiting
  • fluid discharge from the ear (this indicates perforation of the tympanic membrane)
  • headache

Fluid may or may not be present in the middle ear with a middle ear infection. This is called otitis media with effusion (OME). Your doctor may be able to observe a fluid line or a bubble behind the ear drum when examining the ear with an otoscope.

If fluid is present in the ear it may remain there for some time even after the infection is cured. In this case all symptoms may not resolve immediately (for example, muffled hearing and a feeling of pressure may persist). Middle ear infections usually cause the ear drum to appear red and inflamed upon examination and your doctor can make a diagnosis this way.

If you have a very small child or infant who cannot tell you that they are sick, you may watch for additional signs and symptoms of a middle ear infection such as:

  • failure to respond to their own name; failure to startle at loud noises
  • fussiness that increases at night
  • pulling or tugging at the ear
  • decreased appetite

Most confirmed cases of a middle ear infection are treated with antibiotics, however, depending on your situation your doctor may choose to wait and see if your symptoms resolve on their own (especially if symptoms are mild and you do not have other health problems). If there is fluid present in the ear it will often resolve on it's own after a few months.

In the case of persistent ear fluid or chronic ear infections the surgical placement of ventilation tubes may be necessary. You can prevent middle ear infections by:

  • keeping your children up to date on their immunizations
  • washing your hands frequently
  • avoiding exposure to cigarette smoke
  • have allergies properly diagnosed and treated by a physician


American Family Physician. Diagnosis and Treatment of Otitis Media. Accessed: February 28, 2016 from http://www.aafp.org/afp/2007/1201/p1650.html

Medscape. Ear Infection - acute. Accessed: February 28, 2016 from https://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/000638.htm

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