Symptoms of Earache

Ear pain can come on suddenly and cause a lot of anguish. Adults can often name their symptoms of earache, like fever and pain. But ear infections are most common in kids, especially infants between 6 and 15 months old, and they can’t verbalize their symptoms. Because of this, it’s important that parents and caregivers know the symptoms of earache, including unexpected ones, like clumsiness. 

Continue reading to learn more about symptoms and treatments for earache in adults and children.

Man with glasses with ear pain

Dmitry Marchenko / Getty Images

Frequent Symptoms

The most common symptoms of earache are:

  • Pain
  • Fever
  • Fussiness and irritability
  • Fluid draining from the ear

These main symptoms present differently in children who might not have the verbal capacity to express that they are in pain. Signs of earache in kids can include:

  • Pulling or tugging on the ear
  • Crying or being fussier than usual
  • Trouble sleeping or more frequent waking
  • More falls, clumsiness, or balance issues
  • Lack of responses because they’re having trouble hearing

Symptoms of ear infection in adults can also include muffled or reduced hearing and sore throat. 

Rare Symptoms

Some ear infection symptoms are rare. In adults, it’s uncommon for an ear infection to affect balance.

In children, rare ear infection symptoms include:

  • Vertigo
  • Ringing in the ear
  • Temporary minor hearing loss. The risk for hearing loss increases when a child has repeat ear infections. 

Complications

Five out of 6 kids will have an ear infection by the time they’re 3. Complications from ear infections are rare. Still, it’s important to be aware, since serious complications can occur. They’re most common in young children. Here are the complications you should be aware of:

Speech and Language Delays

Kids who have repeat ear infections are at higher risk for hearing loss. In turn, that can lead to developmental delays, especially when it comes to speech and language development. These delays are often temporary. They can be treated with ear tubes and early interventions like speech therapy

Ruptured Eardrum

Rarely, an infection can lead to a ruptured eardrum. The symptoms include:

  • Fluid or blood draining from the ear
  • Ear pain and a sudden stop to ear pain
  • Sudden hearing loss
  • Vertigo or dizziness
  • Ringing in the ear

A ruptured eardrum will usually repair itself within two months, but it’s still a good idea to see your healthcare provider to make sure you don’t need any other treatment. 

Mastoiditis

Mastoiditis is a rare infection of the bone beneath the ear. It can happen when an ear infection spreads and affects the area behind the ear. The symptoms of mastoiditis include:

  • Pain, swelling, redness, and tenderness behind the ear
  • High fever
  • Headache
  • Hearing loss
  • Creamy discharge from the ear

If you or your child has mastoiditis, you’ll need antibiotics in the hospital and possibly surgery. 

Cholesteatoma

Cholesteatoma is a growth in the ears that can lead to hearing loss. It can happen when cells build up in the ear after repeat ear infections. 

The symptoms of cholesteatoma include:

  • Temporary or permanent hearing loss
  • Pressure or aching in or behind the ear
  • Vertigo
  • Foul-smelling discharge from the ear
  • Paralysis of facial muscles

The condition is treated with surgery to remove the growth and prevent or reverse hearing loss. 

Labyrinthitis (Vertigo)

Labyrinthitis is an inflammation of the inner ear. This causes vertigo. The symptoms of labyrinthitis include:

  • Sudden, severe vertigo (sense of spinning)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Lightheadedness
  • Balance trouble
  • Difficulties concentrating
  • Ringing in the ears
  • Hearing loss

Facial Paralysis

If an ear infection causes inflammation and swelling, it can pinch the facial nerve, leaving a child or adult unable to move their face. Facial paralysis is very alarming but usually temporary when it’s associated with an ear infection. 

Meningitis

Very rarely, an ear infection can cause meningitis, an infection of the brain membranes and spinal cord. The symptoms of meningitis include:

  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Sensitivity to light
  • Stiff neck
  • Fatigue and trouble waking from sleep
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Back pain

Meningitis requires treatment in the hospital with antibacterial, antiviral, or antifungal drugs. If you suspect meningitis, seek help immediately. 

Brain Abscess

A brain abscess is a puss-filled pocket in the brain. It’s very rare but serious and can happen when an ear infection spreads to the brain. Symptoms include:

  • Severe headache
  • Facial paralysis
  • Confusion and changes to cognition
  • High fever
  • Seizures

If you or your child has a brain abscess, which is very rare, you’ll need antibiotics and possibly surgery. 

When to Seek Medical Care

Ear infections are common and usually resolve on their own. However, you should call your healthcare provider if you or your child experience:

  • Severe pain or high fever
  • Pain that stops suddenly
  • Dizziness or headache
  • Swelling around the ear
  • Facial weakness or paralysis
  • Symptoms that last longer than 48 hours

Summary 

Ear infections are most common in children between the ages of 15 months to 6 years. Young children may be unable to express their pain verbally, so caregivers should look for other symptoms of earache including tugging at the ear, trouble sleeping, fussiness, or lack or balance. Adults suffering from an ear infection may experience pain and a fever.

A Word From Verywell

Ear infections are super common. But in rare cases they can cause serious complications. If you’re concerned about yourself or your child, don’t hesitate to call your healthcare provider. You may need medication to treat the infection.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Do ear infections go away?

    Most ear infections start improving within 48 hours. If you or your child have symptoms that last longer than that, call your healthcare provider. 

  • How many ear infections is too many?

    If a person has three ear infections in six months or four ear infections in a year, they have chronic infections. Talk to your healthcare provider about the best treatment. 

  • Can adults get ear infections?

    Ear infections are most common in babies 15 months or younger, but anyone can get them. 

5 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. National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders. Ear infections in children.

  2. MedlinePlus. Earache

  3. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Middle-ear infection in adults

  4. Huston, K. Common and uncommon middle ear infection symptoms. Norton Children’s.

  5. NHS Inform. Middle ear infection (otitis media).

By Kelly Burch
Kelly Burch is has written about health topics for more than a decade. Her writing has appeared in The Washington Post, The Chicago Tribune, and more.