Ear Infection Treatment: How to Get Rid of an Ear Infection
Ear infections can affect both children and adults, though they are more frequent among children. Approximately 75% of children have an ear infection before they reach 3 years of age and treatment for ear infection symptoms are the most common reason parents bring their child to a doctor.
Ear infections can occur in different parts of the ear including the
- Outer ear: Composed of the pinna and ear canal
- Middle ear: An air filled space where small bones called ossicles help interpret sound
- Inner ear: Which transmits sound into electrical impulses, as well as provides balance to the body
Ear infection symptoms in each region have some similarities, but there are also some unique symptoms and ways of how to treat an ear infection, depending on which part of the ear is infected.
What does an ear infection look like?
You cannot see into the middle ear, but using an otoscope to perform an ear examination, a doctor can observe visible signs of ear infection in the middle ear that might include:
- A bulging eardrum
- An eardrum that is immobile in response to pressure changes
- A perforation of the eardrum, and associated signs of bloody or purulent drainage.
Infections in the inner ear are not directly visible. If there is reason to believe an infection in the inner ear exists based on description of the ear infection symptoms, then a head CT scan, MRI of the head, EEG, electronystagmography, or hearing test might be administered.
Signs of ear Infection in the outer ear are more easily visible. Purulent debris and redness at the ear canal might be visible, if the infection is fungal a furuncle can be observed.
What does an ear infection feel like?
Physical symptoms of an ear infection can differ depending on what part of the ear is affected.
Middle, Outer, and Inner Ear:
- Earaches, which can be sharp and sudden or dull and continuous
- Reduced hearing or hearing loss
Middle and Inner Ear Only: Nausea, Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
Middle and Outer Ear Only: Discharge, Feeling of a clogged ear
Inner Ear Infection Symptoms: Vertigo, Loss of balance
Outer Ear Infection Symptoms: Extra pain sensitivity in response to pulling on the pinna or when chewing
Symptoms of an Ear Infection in Children
The most common type of ear infection affects the middle ear and is known as acute otitis media. Often infections in the middle ear are caused by swelling or blockage of the Eustachian tubes, which connect the middle ear to the throat behind the nose. The Eustachian tube
- Regulates air pressure in the middle ear,
- Refreshes air in the ear, and
- Drains normal secretions from the middle ear.
Infections in the middle ear are more common in young children and infants because their Eustachian tubes are less well developed. Children in the age range of 3 months to 3 years are at heightened risk of developing an ear infection due to the susceptibility of thier Eustachian tubes to blockage.
Children and toddlers might not be able to express their symptoms, but they will show signs of ear infection such as:
- Constant pulling, tugging, or scratching at the ears
- Consistently poor sleep
- Regular fever of 100 °F or over
- Difficulty responding to sounds
- Constant restlessness
- Ear drainage
- Constant poor appetite
- Increased irritability
- Crying at night when lying down
How to Treat an Ear Infection
Middle ear infection symptoms usually improve within the first couple of days, and most infections clear up on their own within one to two weeks without any treatment. The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend a wait-and-see approach as one option for what to do for an ear infection if:
- Children 6 to 23 months have mild inner ear pain in one ear for less than 48 hours and a temperature less than 102.2 °F (39 °C)
- Children 24 months and older have mild inner ear pain in one or both ears for less than 48 hours and a temperature less than 102.2 °F (39 °C)
Often ear infections are caused by a virus, in which case antibiotics would have no effect. More rarely ear infections are caused by bacteria, in which case treatment with antibiotics can be an effective way of how to cure ear infection. Talk to your doctor about the benefits of antibiotics weighed against the potential side effects and concern about overuse of antibiotics creating strains of resistant disease.What's best for you or your child depends on many factors, including age and the severity of symptoms.
How to Get Rid of an Ear Infection in the Outer Ear:
How to get rid of an ear infection can differ depending on what part of the ear is infected. For infections in the outer ear there are more options for how to treat ear infection, which include:
- Debridement, which extracts infected material from the ear canal by using a suction tool.
- Altering the pH of the ear canal using vinegar or over-the-counter ear drops for ear infection. This can also be accomplished by using a homemade hydrogen peroxide ear infection drops (1:1 ratio of water : hydrogen peroxide, or just straight hydrogen peroxide). Caution: if there is a perforation in the eardrum consult a doctor before inserting fluids into your ear canal as they might get into the middle ear.
- Antibiotics can be effective way of how to cure an ear infection in the outer ear if the infection is bacterial, but antibiotics should be reserved for more severe or persistent cases. If the outer ear infection is fungal then antibiotics will have no effect and should not be used. Always consult with a doctor before using antibiotics.
How to Get Rid of an Ear Infection in the Inner Ear:
For inner ear infections, known as labyrinthitis, the duration of severe symptoms lasts longer than for middle or outer ear infections and can take as long as a few weeks; complete recovery may take as long as 2 to 3 months. If the infection is bacterial, then antibiotics might be needed for ear infection relief. However, bacterial inner ear infections are rare and an inner ear infection is more likely to be viral, in which case antibiotics will have no effect. Always talk to a doctor before taking antibiotics.
Managing symptoms of an ear infection within the inner ear include self care options such as:
- Keeping still and getting lots of rest
- Avoiding bright lights, television, or reading during attacks
- Balance therapy
- Getting help walking or moving about if you have lost balance
Antibiotic Therapy for Children
After an initial observation period, your doctor may recommend antibiotic treatment for an ear infection in the following situations:
- The infection is bacterial and not viral or fungal.
- Children 6 months and older with moderate to severe ear pain in one or both ears for at least 48 hours or a temperature of 102.2 °F (39 °C) or higher
- Children 6 to 23 months with mild inner ear pain in one or both ears for less than 48 hours and a temperature less than 102.2 °F (39 °C)
- Children 24 months and older with mild inner ear pain in one or both ears for less than 48 hours and a temperature less than 102.2 °F (39 °C)
Children younger than 6 months of age with confirmed acute otitis media are more likely to be treated with antibiotics without the initial observational waiting time.
Even after symptoms have improved, be sure to use all of the antibiotic as directed. Failing to do so can result in recurring infection and resistance of bacteria to antibiotic medications. Talk to your doctor or pharmacist about what to do if you accidentally skip a dose.
Treatment for Ear Infection Symptoms
If the wait-and-see approach of how to get rid of ear infection is used, then there are some medicinal options to help provide relief for the symptoms of an ear infection. Possible medications to treat ear infection symptoms include:
- A warm compress. Placing a warm, moist washcloth over the affected ear may lessen pain.
- Pain medication. Your doctor may advise the use of over-the-counter acetaminophen (Tylenol, others) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin IB, others) to relieve pain. Use the drugs as directed on the label. Use caution when giving aspirin to children or teenagers. Children and teenagers recovering from chickenpox or flu-like symptoms should never take aspirin because aspirin has been linked with Reye's syndrome. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
- Antiemetics can be used for ear infection relief if vomiting is a problematic symptom.
- Antihistamines aren’t a direct treatment for ear infection, but if allergies are causing the Eustachian tubes to swell, then by taking antihistamines to bring the Eustachian tubes back to normal can provide ear infection relief.
- Corticosteroids can help reduce itching and inflammation.
- Anti-viral medicines.
- Medicines to relieve dizziness.
When to See a Doctor
Signs and symptoms of an ear infection can indicate a number of conditions. It's important to get an accurate diagnosis and prompt treatment. Call your doctor if:
- Symptoms last for more than a day
- Symptoms are present in a child less than 6 months of age
- Ear pain is severe
- Your infant or toddler is sleepless or irritable after a cold or other upper respiratory infection
- You observe a discharge of fluid, pus or bloody discharge from the ear
- Your child develops stiff neck, a condition where children cannot move their neck due to sharp neck and back pain
Should any of these symptoms continue or worsen make an appointment with your
primary care physician or see an urgent care immediately.
Read more from our Ear Infection Series:
- Ear Infection Symptoms
- How Long Does an Ear Infection Last?
- How to Tell if You Have an Ear Infection