A child experiencing an earache

What is an ear infection?

Ear infections can be either bacterial or viral infections. They can occur in your middle ear, the part of your ear just behind your eardrum, and the outer and inner ear. They often clear up on their own but can be painful due to inflammation or fluid buildup. 

You can’t catch an ear infection from someone else, but illnesses like coughs and colds that lead to ear infections are catching.

Some children get ear infections more often than others.


Common symptoms of ear infections include:

  • mild pain or discomfort inside your ear
  • a persistent feeling of pressure inside your ear
  • pus-like ear drainage
  • hearing loss

Symptoms in children

Along with symptoms seen in adults, young children and babies may show other signs of an ear infection, such as:

  • rubbing or pulling their ear
  • fever
  • not reacting to certain sounds
  • frequently losing balance
  • headache
  • fussiness or restlessness
  • loss of appetite

In some children, fluid collects in the middle ear.

  • The fluid may last for as long as three months, but the child may not have a fever or even an earache. The child’s hearing may be affected, but most children get better without medical treatment. Others may need medicine or ear tubes to correct the hearing problem.
  • Hearing loss in young children may need to be treated to prevent speech and language delay.


What to do if your child has an ear infection at home

  • Call your doctor if you think your child has an ear infection. Your doctor will need to look into your child’s ears to see if they are infected.
  • If your doctor prescribes medicine for an ear infection, the child must take all of the medicine prescribed by the doctor.
  • Do not give over-the-counter cough and cold medicines to a child under three years of age unless your doctor tells you to.

Doctors may treat children under two years of age with antibiotics. The doctor may suggest antibiotics or medicine for pain relief for older children. Usually, the doctor will want to recheck the ears to ensure the infection is gone.

Not every child with an ear infection will need an antibiotic. Decongestants and antihistamines do not help ear infections. Most ear infections are not severe and last for three days.  

Call the doctor or 811 if your child has any of the following:

  • an earache that becomes worse even though the doctor has treated it
  • a temperature of 38.5°C or higher and is less than six months of age 
  • a temperature of 38.5°C or higher that lasts for more than 72 hours 
  • is very cranky or fussy or cries more than usual
  • has trouble breathing or breathes very quickly
  • does not respond to quiet sounds
  • is vomiting
  • is very sleepy or listless
  • Has any other signs of illness that concern you

Children with ear infections may go to the childcare centre or school if they feel well enough to participate in activities.