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.

Check if it’s an ear infection

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

pain inside the ear
a high temperature of 38C or above
being sick
a lack of energy
difficulty hearing
discharge running out of the ear
a feeling of pressure or fullness inside the ear
itching and irritation in and around the ear
scaly skin in and around the ear
Young children and babies with an ear infection may also:

rub or pull their ear
not react to some sounds
be irritable or restless
be off their food
keep losing their balance
Most ear infections clear up within 3 days, although sometimes symptoms can last up to a week.

Differences between inner ear infection and outer ear infection
How to treat an ear infection yourself

To help relieve any pain and discomfort from an ear infection:

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
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
A pharmacist can help with an ear infection

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

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

Find a pharmacy
Non-urgent advice: See a GP if you or your child have:
a very high temperature or feel hot and shivery
earache that does not start to get better after 3 days
swelling around the ear
fluid coming from the ear
hearing loss or a change in hearing
other symptoms, like being sick, a severe sore throat or dizziness
regular ear infections
a long-term medical condition – such as diabetes or a heart, lung, kidney or neurological disease
a weakened immune system – because of chemotherapy, for example
Coronavirus update: how to contact a GP

It’s still important to get help from a GP if you need it. To contact your GP surgery:

visit their website
use the NHS App
call them
Find out about using the NHS during coronavirus
What happens at your appointment

Your 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.

Treatment from a GP

Your 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 their 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

Your GP might prescribe:

antibiotic ear drops – to treat a bacterial infection
steroid ear drops – to bring down swelling
antifungal ear drops – to treat a fungal infection
antibiotic tablets – if your bacterial infection is severe
If you have a spot or boil in your ear, your GP may pierce it with a needle to drain the pus.

Ear drops may not work if they’re not used correctly.

How to use ear drops
Preventing ear infections

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 ear plugs 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