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Ear Infections

What Is an Ear Infection?

Ear infections refer to a broad range of acute conditions that affect the ear canal or middle ear and are characterized by swelling and pain in the ear.

Ear infections can be the result of a range of conditions or injuries, including:

  • Acute otitis externa — Also known as swimmer’s ear, acute otitis externa is an infection that occurs in the ear canal.

  • Acute otitis media — An infection caused by bacteria or viruses in the middle ear, beneath the ear drum. These infections can cause a hole to form in the eardrum and pus draining from the ear.

  • Otitis media with effusion — Also known as serous otitis media, this condition is due to buildup of fluid in the middle ear following an ear infection, cold or allergies. This fluid can affect hearing and balance but will not cause pain or fever.

  • Tympanic membrane perforation — Ruptured ear drums can be caused by acute otitis media as noted above. Inserting objects into the ear or other injuries can also cause tympanic membrane perforations.

Symptoms

In rare cases, people with ear infections may not exhibit symptoms. However, most infections show similar symptoms that allow them to be diagnosed after a brief physical exam. Although many ear infections are acute or short-term, they can become chronic conditions that may be more difficult to diagnose. The most common ear infection symptoms include:

  • Ear pain or pressure — Ear pain results from pressure of pus on the eardrum and from inflammation associated with the infection.

  • Hearing loss — This partial or complete inability to hear will typically resolve after the infection has cleared.

  • Ear drainage — Fluids that are clear, milky white, bloody, or yellow or brown may drain from the ear. 

  • Fever — Body temperature greater than 98.6˚F is a fever, and can occur due to an ear infection.

  • Dizziness — Feelings of unbalance, floating or spinning are common and can lead to falls or injuries.

Treatment Options

The key to treating ear infections is determining where in the ear the infection occurs. While most acute ear infections can be diagnosed via a physical exam, more serious infections may require a computed tomography scan (CT) and/or hearing test for complete diagnosis. Once a diagnosis is confirmed, treatment is determined based on the severity and location of the infection. Common treatments include:

  • Medication — Eardrops or antibiotic medications are often prescribed to treat ear infections.

  • Surgery — Surgical procedures may be required to treat chronic or recurring ear infections. For children, surgery to implant ear tubes through the eardrum can improve ear drainage, allow treatments for ear infection with antibiotic drops, and reduce the number and severity of ear infections. In the event of severe infections that affect the mastoid bone, procedures can be performed to remove infection.

  • Symptom management — Over-the-counter pain relievers and fever reducers can reduce the discomfort caused by mild ear infections.

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