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An ear infection—also called acute otitis media (AOM)—is a painful condition in which the air-filled space behind the ear drum (the middle ear) becomes inflamed and infected. Ear infections affect at least 3 million Americans annually and they occur more commonly in children than in adults. Most ear infections are not serious and clear up naturally within days, but some require treatment with antibiotics. While most ear infections affect the middle ear, there are also inner ear infections and outer ear infections. Outer ear infections are often caused by exposure to moisture, while inner and middle ear infections are caused by viruses and/or bacteria.
Causes & Prevention
Often, another illness such as a cold, flu, or allergies causes the eustachian tubes—tubes running from the middle ear to the back of the throat—to become swollen or blocked with fluid. After some time, the fluid can become infected with harmful bacteria or viruses. Children have smaller eustachian tubes than adults, which is one reason why children get ear infections more frequently. You can lower your risk of developing ear infections by practicing good ear hygiene, avoiding smoking, and minimizing exposure to second-hand smoke and allergens.
Common symptoms of ear infection in children include ear pain, ear drainage, fever, crying when lying down, tugging at the ear, loss of balance, trouble hearing, loss of appetite, trouble sleeping, headache, and general irritability. Common symptoms of ear infection in adults include earache (dull pain), sharp pain in the ear, drainage from the ear, muffled hearing, and a sense of fullness in the ear. If your outer ear is painful, swollen, tender, red, or itching, then you may have an outer ear infection. If you have symptoms of dizziness, nausea, vomiting, or a spinning sensation, you may have an inner ear infection which is more serious and requires medical treatment.
Treatment & Care
Many ear infections clear up on their own simply with rest, time, and perhaps some over-the-counter painkillers. However, if you—or your child over age 12—have symptoms lasting more than one day, severe ear pain, a discharge from the ear, or a fever above 100.4°F, then you should see an in-person physician or an online doctor visit for ear infection to get access to rapid assessment and treatment possibly including antibiotic prescriptions. If your young child under age 12 is suffering from an ear infection, please take them to urgent care or an in-person doctor. Our telehealth doctors are unable to prescribe antibiotics for children under 12.