A woman holding a medical device

Ear Infections

Also known as otitis media

Ear infections (otitis media) occur when fluid and pus build up in the middle ear, behind the tympanic membrane (eardrum), causing ear pain. This is often due to a cold or allergies that can block drainage, introducing bacteria or viruses, and causing inflammation. 

More common in children than adults, ear infections may or may not be accompanied by fever in children. In babies and young children, nonverbal clues that suggest an ear infection include pulling on the ear, crying more than usual, balance or hearing problems, and drainage from the ear.

Most ear infections resolve without antibiotics and are treated with pain relievers and decongestants. A persistent ear infection may require antibiotics, and ear tube placement may be recommended for chronic otitis media.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Are ear infections contagious?

    Ear infections are not contagious, however, the cold virus that sets the stage for ear infections can be spread from person to person. Ear infections occur when the eustachian tube that links the back of the throat to the middle ear is unable to drain, commonly due to congestion and inflammation from a cold or allergies. Bacteria or viruses can then multiply in the middle ear, causing infection.

  • How do you get rid of an ear infection?

    Ear infections typically clear on their own without antibiotics. You can relieve the pain with over-the-counter pain medications such as Advil (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen) or pain relieving ear drops (available over the counter or by prescription). Applying a warm cloth or hot water bottle to the affected ear can also ease pain and help improve drainage.

  • What causes ear infections?

    Ear infections are caused by a blockage of the eustachian tube, which links the back of the throat to the middle ear. The tube, blocked by inflammation, mucus, or congestion from allergies or a cold, can’t drain the middle ear. Bacteria or viruses can then multiply in the middle ear, leading to an infection.

  • What does an ear infection look like?

    An ear infection cannot be seen from the outside. Your doctor will use an otoscope—a medical tool with a light and magnifying glass—to see the external ear canal and eardrum (tympanic membrane). If the ear is infected, there will be marked redness in the ear canal, the tympanic membrane will appear bulging, and air bubbles or fluid may be visible behind the eardrum, which may also have a hole or perforation. There may also be green or yellow discharge coming from the eardrum.

  • How long do ear infections last?

    An ear infection can last anywhere from a few days to several weeks. Most ear infections clear up on their own in two or three days without any treatment. In some cases, however, an infection can last longer and may require antibiotics. If there is fluid trapped in the ear drum, it may take six weeks or more for an ear infection to fully heal.

  • How do you know if you have an ear infection?

    The main symptom of an ear infection is pain in the ear. You may also experience a feeling of fullness in the ear, nasal congestion, hearing loss in the affected ear, drainage of fluid from the ear, and a feeling of general illness. A fever may sometimes accompany an ear infection in children, but it is not common in adults.

Key Terms

What Does an Ear Infection Look Like?

Explore an interactive model below that shows an up-close cross-section of a human ear, and demonstrates how fluid that builds up during an ear infection puts pressure on the tympanic membrane (eardrum), leading to pain.

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Page Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Adenoids. MedlinePlus. Updated March 6, 2020.

  2. American Academy of Audiology. What is an audiologist?

  3. American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. Ear tubes.

  4. Szymanski A, Agarwal A. Anatomy, head and neck, ear eustachian tube. [Updated 2020 Aug 10]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-.

  5. U.S. National Library of Medicine. Tympanometry. MedlinePlus. Updated October 8, 2020. 

Additional Reading