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When to get treatment for an ear infection

Ear infections are a pain. And while anyone can get one, they’re one of the most common reasons young children visit a medical provider.

Most ear infections are not serious and will clear up on their own in a matter of days. While you wait it out, pain and discomfort can be easily managed at home. But when symptoms worsen or are prolonged, medical treatment may be necessary.

What causes ear infection?

A middle ear infection (acute otitis media) is the most common childhood illness, especially among kiddos between 3 months and 3 years. Ear infections are typically caused by bacteria and viruses and often follow a cold or other respiratory infection. The bacteria or virus moves into the middle ear via the eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear to the back of the throat, causing the tube to become blocked. With no easy exit, the fluid builds up in the middle ear. The trapped fluid can become infected and cause pain.

Children are more susceptible than adults to ear infections because their eustachian tubes are shorter and have less of a slope. That makes them easier to clog and more difficult to drain. 

Other conditions can also affect the ears. Otitis media with effusion occurs when fluid builds up in the middle ear but does not become infected or cause pain. It can, however, cause hearing problems. Otitis externa, also known as swimmer’s ear, occurs when the outer ear canal becomes infected. 

What are the symptoms of ear infection?

Common ear infection symptoms in children can include:

  • Ear pain, especially when lying down
  • Fever
  • Fussiness, irritability or more crying than usual
  • Rubbing or tugging at an ear
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Loss of appetite due to pain or discomfort when swallowing
  • Trouble hearing or responding to sounds
  • Headache
  • Loss of balance
  • Drainage of fluid from the ear

Signs of ear infection in adults include:

  • Ear pain
  • Drainage of fluid from the ear
  • Trouble hearing

How can I treat an ear infection at home?

If symptoms are mild, there are safe and effective home remedies that can help ease ear pain.

  • Apply hot or cold compresses. Try both to determine what works best. Soak a washcloth in warm or cool water, then wring it out and place it over the ear that’s causing pain. If you use an ice pack, be sure to wrap it in a towel before placing next to skin. If  you opt for a heating pad, dial the setting to warm, not hot.
  • Reach for over-the-counter pain relievers. Take the edge off earache pain with acetaminophen (Tylenol), ibuprofen (Advil) or naproxen (Aleve).
  • Elevate your sleep position. If it feels better, rest or sleep propped up on pillows to encourage fluid in the ear to drain. 

Over-the-counter ear drops that contain pain relievers may bring brief relief, but it’s best to check with a medical provider before using them. Same goes for garlic, tea tree or olive oil. Drops of any kind should never be administered if an eardrum has a tear or hole.

When should I seek medical care?

In most cases, symptoms of an ear infection should clear up in two or three days. But sometimes, an ear infection warrants medical attention. 

Visit your nearby Indigo Health if you or your child have:

  • A fever of 102.2°F or higher.
  • Pus, discharge or fluid coming from the ear.
  • Swelling or a knot behind or under the ear.
  • Difficulty moving parts of your face.
  • Severe pain that suddenly stops. (This could be a sign of a ruptured eardrum.)
  • Weakness or lethargy.
  • Prolonged dizziness, loss of balance or extreme headaches.
  • Worsening symptoms or symptoms that last for more than 2–3 days.

Ear infections are much more serious for very young children. If your little one is under 6 months old and shows signs of ear pain (grabbing at their ears, inconsolable crying), seek medical care right away. 

Are ear infections a symptom of COVID-19?

Ear infections are not typically a symptom of COVID-19. However, if you or a family member experience an earache along with other respiratory symptoms (cough, fever, shortness of breath) or other indicators of COVID-19, you should get tested as soon as possible. Call first before visiting a hospital, medical clinic or urgent care. Learn more about Indigo’s testing options.

You can also take a quick online assessment using our Coronavirus Assessment Tool, or have an e-Visit with an Indigo Online Care provider to determine your risk and whether you need to be referred to a testing site.

What can I expect at Indigo?

When you or your child needs care for an ear infection, the amazingly friendly providers at Indigo Health are here to help. Your medical provider will assess your symptoms and use an otoscope to examine inside your ear to help make a diagnosis.If needed, we’ll prescribe ear drops or antibiotics or provide other treatment to manage the pain. And if your symptoms indicate something more serious is going on, we’ll refer you to a higher level of care. 

Schedule an appointment online or walk in to your neighborhood Indigo. We’re here every day, 8 am to 8 pm, including holidays.

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