Infections of the ears can affect the outer, middle, and inner ears, and they can either be acute or chronic. Among adults, outer and middle ear infections are the most prevalent, while those of the inner ear are rare. In general, you know you have an acute infection if the symptoms stick around only for a short time. Chronic ear infections last much longer and are more likely to lead to lasting damage to parts of the inner ear, including the cochlea, the auditory, and vestibular nerve. Repeated middle ear infections can also damage the mechanism that is responsible for balance.
 
Before we dive into discussing the top ear infection symptoms, it is essential to review what an ear infection is and the various types. According to the definition of the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, an ear infection is an inflammation of the middle ear by a pathogen (virus or bacteria) caused by fluid buildup behind the eardrum. 



 

Ear infection types

Ear infections can affect the inner, middle, or outer ears. Young children are incredibly prone to getting ear infections, with the majority of them encountering at least one episode before age three. Not everyone, however, is likely to get the ailment. Some of the most common risk factors are family history, frequent allergies, weak immune system, and exposure to second-hand smoke. Bottle-fed babies and infants who use a pacifier are also more likely to get ear infections. 
 
The five most common ear infections are acute otitis media, otitis media with effusion, otitis externa (Swimmer's ear), ruptured eardrum, and mastoiditis.
 
Acute otitis media is the most common of the three types. Your health care provider can easily diagnose an acute ear infection with an otoscope. The hallmark signs of this condition are swollen and infected middle ear parts and trapped fluid behind the eardrum. Acute otitis media can be very painful, and it may be accompanied by fever, especially in children. 
 
Once an ear infection has run its course, it might leave you with what's called otitis media with effusion. Interestingly, the only symptom may be the fluid behind the eardrum. Chronic otitis media with effusion happens when the fluid behind the eardrum either stays for a long time or repeatedly returns, despite no sign of infection. It is challenging for children to deal with this chronic condition because the presence of fluid creates a breeding ground for pathogens - such as viruses and bacteria - making it more difficult to ward off new infections. 
 
A ruptured eardrum occurs when an injury or infection causes a tear or hole in the eardrum. Trapped fluid in the middle ear can create intense pressure, exacerbating the rupture by making it worse, even causing hearing loss. 
Don't be too concerned if your doctor diagnoses you with a ruptured eardrum, as most often, it heals on its own in a matter of weeks. Mastoiditis is a serious condition that happens when otitis media is inadequately treated, allowing the infection to spread to the bone behind the ear, called the mastoid. As this is a severe bacterial infection, it is critical to seek medical attention and get treatment from a healthcare provider. Left untreated, the complications can be devastating, such as deafness, brain injury, blood poisoning, and even death. 

How do ear infections develop?

 
To better understand how ear infections develop, it is important to become familiar with a particular section of the ear canal. The Eustachian tube - also known as the auditory tube - stretches from the middle ear to the upper part of the throat behind the nose. It supports the health of the middle ear by equalizing pressure, removing secretions, and guarding against infection-causing pathogens. When the Eustachian tube becomes clogged or swollen - which can happen due to various reasons - viruses and bacteria can begin to proliferate, and an ear infection can quickly set in. In some instances, the eardrum may rupture and create a flow of pus from the ear.
 
Here are some of the most important signs that you have an ear infection.
 
 

What are the most common ear infection symptoms?

 
1. Pain in your ear
 
Pain or discomfort in your ear is one of the hallmark signs that you are either in the process of developing an ear infection or that you already have it. It is not uncommon for someone to feel an unpleasant sensation deep inside the ear canal even before an actual infection. As the condition progresses and the pathogens begin to multiply, inflammation and swelling occur. Understandably, as the swelling and inflammation get worse, so does the pain. To make matters worse, pain may not always be confined to your ear area; it may radiate all the way down to your jaw. Over-the-counter or prescription pain-relieving medications may be helpful to alleviate the pain.
 
Keep in mind; pain may not be the only type of discomfort signaling your ear problems. Many people feel uncomfortable pressure and irritating itching as well. 
 
2. Flu-like symptoms
 
When we come down with the flu, the most common symptoms we experience are congestion, fever, sore throat, and runny nose. When the Eustachian tubes get clogged, an ear infection can also develop. When the stuffiness and congestion linger for weeks, the likelihood of developing an ear infection increases exponentially. 

3. Trouble sleeping
 
Ear pain can be detrimental to your ability to get  quality sleep. For some people, the pain can be so intense that falling asleep becomes a real issue, especially since the discomfort often gets worse at night. Ringing in the ear - that often accompanies middle, outer and inner ear infections - may prevent you from getting sufficient rest from a few days to several weeks. 
4. Trouble sleeping
 
Ear pain can be detrimental to your ability to get quality sleep. For some people, the pain can be so intense that falling asleep becomes a real issue, especially since the discomfort often gets worse at night. Ringing in the ear - that often accompanies middle, outer and inner ear infections - may prevent you from getting sufficient rest from a few days to several weeks. 


5. Swollen ears
Itching in your ear canal is not an uncommon symptom of a middle ear infection, especially if the sensation is accompanied by a feeling of fullness, intense pain, buzzing, or ringing in the ear. You might notice that as the infection gets worse, so does the itching. The worst part of this itch is that it typically occurs deep inside the ear canal, making it impossible to scratch.
 
6. Fever
 
Fever is a natural response from the body to stop the growth of pathogens - viruses or bacteria - causing a middle ear infection. Your body will use its natural defenses to fight off the invaders. Pathogens do not like high temperatures, which is why your body will elevate your body temperature to create an environment that the pathogens cannot thrive in. 
While a low-grade fever (below 102 degrees F) should not worry you, a high-grade fever may be a sign that your infection is spreading. Be sure to seek medical attention if you develop very high temperatures. 
 
7. Discharge leaking from your ear
 
If you see discharge leaking from your ear, it is a strong indicator of a severe middle ear infection. When an excessive amount of fluid gets trapped in your ear canal, it can cause a tear in your eardrum, making it perforated. When the fluid makes its way through the tear, clear or yellowish discharge becomes visible. If you notice a foul odor with the discharge, you must seek attention from a health care professional.
8. Dizziness
 
It is no wonder why so many people become dizzy when coming down with an ear infection. The ear plays a critical role in maintaining balance. 
 
When an infection of the ear arises, the swelling can push on this mechanism, leading to dizziness. This sensation can be disconcerting, leaving you feeling disoriented. If the dizziness persists, be sure to speak with your doctor to minimize the chances of long-term balance issues. 
9. Hearing impairment
 
If the infection you develop is severe or is allowed to spread, you may experience a certain degree of hearing loss or hearing disturbance over time. As the infection progresses, the inflammation will also increase, potentially creating blockages in your ear canal.
 
10. Headache
 
Headaches caused by inflammation in the ear, pain, and fever are also possible signs of an ear infection. The headaches can be dull and persistent that tend to come on intermittently. Do not ignore your symptoms, as a headache may also be a sign of meningitis, a possible complication of untreated ear infections. 
 
As you can see, the symptoms of an ear infection are numerous, and many of them can take a toll on your quality of life. Although you can try home remedies to alleviate your symptoms, it is best to get your ears checked out by a health care professional if you suspect that you have an ear infection.