How Do You Know If You Have an Ear Infection?

A female doctor examines a child's ear.

Ear infections are often considered a childhood disease, but as much as 20% of ear infections occur in adults, so it’s important to understand the signs and symptoms. It’s also important to know when to call or visit a doctor.

If your child is more than 6 months old and their symptoms are mild, you can try at-home treatments like placing a warm compress on the affected ear and giving them an over-the-counter pain reliever like acetaminophen first. If symptoms do not improve quickly, it’s time to get them looked at by a medical professional.

Types and symptoms of ear infections

How do you know if you have an ear infection? The only way to confirm an ear infection is to see a doctor. At Coastal Urgent Care of Ruston, we can diagnose and treat all types of ear infections.

There are three main types of ear infections, all classified according to where they occur in the ear.

Inner ear infection

An inner ear infection is caused by a virus or bacteria (e.g., a cold or the flu), which usually reach the inner part of the ear after infecting another part of the body, like the middle ear. Symptoms of an inner ear infection include:

  • Vertigo (a sensation that you or your surroundings are spinning or moving around even when everything is still)
  • Difficulty balancing or walking normally
  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear
  • Tinnitus (ringing in the ear)
  • Earache
  • Headache
  • Discharge draining from the ear

Inner ear infections typically clear up within a few weeks without prescription medication, although some can last for 6 weeks or more. Over-the-counter medications like ibuprofen can help alleviate the pain and inflammation associated with an inner ear infection. However, if you or a loved one experiences severe symptoms that don’t start to improve within a few days, visit Coastal Urgent Care of Ruston for a comprehensive exam, diagnosis, and treatment.

Middle ear infection

The most common type of ear infection is also called acute otitis media. It’s an infection of the middle ear, or the air-filled space located just behind the eardrum, and is often caused by another illness, like a cold or the flu. This space contains the three tiny vibrating bones of the ear called the ossicles. Ossicles send sound waves to the inner ear and into the fluid-filled hearing organ called the cochlea. Middle ear infections can restrict the movement of these tiny ossicles and make it difficult to hear properly. Other symptoms of a middle ear infection include:

  • Ear pain, especially when lying down
  • Discharge draining from the ear
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite

Most middle ear infections clear up within 3-5 days and do not need any specific treatment. However, if symptoms do not improve (or worsen) in the first 24 hours, visit Coastal Urgent Care of Ruston for an accurate diagnosis and fast treatment.

Outer ear infection

Otitis externa is an infection of the outer ear canal that runs from the eardrum to the outside of the head. It’s often caused by water remaining in the ear after swimming or bathing. This creates a moist environment that helps bacteria or fungi grow.

  • Itching
  • Swelling and redness
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Jaw pain and pain with chewing
  • Swollen lymph nodes around the ear
  • Cloudy, yellow, or pus-like discharge draining from the ear

You can ease the pain and discomfort of an outer ear infection with over-the-counter pain relievers like acetaminophen or nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Motrin, aspirin, or Aleve. If symptoms do not improve within 3 days, contact your primary care physician immediately or visit your local urgent care facility, especially if your body temperature rises above 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit, as this could indicate a more serious infection.

Whether you have an inner, middle, or outer ear infection it’s important to get it checked by a medical professional if symptoms last longer than 2-3 days. If left untreated, ear infections can lead to the following complications:

  • Hearing loss
  • Mastoiditis (a serious bacterial infection of the mastoid bone behind the ear)
  • Meningitis (inflammation of the protective membranes covering the brain and spinal cord)
  • Brain abscess (a pus-filled pocket of infected material in your brain, which can put harmful pressure on the brain tissue and restrict blood flow)

If you or a loved one needs fast, efficient ear infection treatment, visit Coastal Urgent Care of Ruston. We welcome walk-in appointments 7 days a week.