What Does An Ear Infection Feel Like?
Does your ear feel stuffed up? Or maybe you can feel a sharp stinging sensation coming from inside your ear canal?
Well, pain or discomfort within your ear can be signs of an ear infection. And while these symptoms can clear up on their own within 3 days (or with a course of antibiotics), the discomfort can disrupt your day-to-day routine and leave you feeling frustrated.
In this article, we will talk through more signs of an ear infection, what an ear infection feels like, and how to get rid of an ear infection with a mixture of medicines and home remedies.
Common types of ear infections
In general, ear infections are usually divided into infections that occur within the ear canal (otitis externa) and infections within the middle ear – also known as the small space behind the ear drum (otitis media).
Both present differently and are managed differently. Most ear canal infections are viral however around a quarter of patients with ear canal infection have persistent or recurrent symptoms. Whereas middle ear infections are more common in children and can be viral or bacterial.
What does an ear infection feel like?
Itching within your ear is one of the most common early signs of an ear infection. This can develop could develop from fungal, viral or bacterial infections, as well as conditions such as eczema within the ear, which can be exacerbated by allergies.
As the infection develops, the most noticeable sign of an ear infection may be pain within the ear. There are also differences between what an ear infection feels like for adults and what it feels like for children. Within adults, signs of an ear infection could include:
- Pressure within the ear.
- Itching within the ear.
- Lacking energy.
- Struggling to hear.
- Discharge coming out of the ear.
- Dry skin inside or around the outside of the ear.
As it can be difficult for young children to express when they are in pain or, more specifically, where the pain is coming from, look out for the following additional signs of an ear infection within children:
- Rubbing their ear.
- Pulling on their earlobe.
- Irritability or restlessness.
- Not reacting to sounds.
- Drop in appetite.
- Struggling to stay balanced.
- A high temperature or fever.
In addition, an ear infection may come with coexisting illness such as a respiratory condition or show other systemic symptoms.
When to see a GP about an ear infection
Most signs of an ear infection clear up on their own within 3 days, but if the pain is still not getting better after that time has passed, then the NHS recommends that you see a GP.
You should call 111 for advice, as soon as possible, if you are experiencing any of the following symptoms, alongside the typical signs of an ear infection:
- You have a high temperature or feel shivery.
- Swelling, redness or a boggy, tender mass behind your ear.
- Fluid coming out of your ear.
- Nausea or throwing up.
- A child under the age of 2 is showing signs of pain in both ears.
The NHS also recommends that you seek medical advice for an ear infection from 111 if you have a weakened immune system or other medical conditions. This could include diabetes, heart disease, lung disease, kidney disease, or another neurological disease.
How long does an ear infection last?
If you’re wondering how long an ear infection lasts, then you can usually expect to feel better after 3 days without antibiotics.
However, this depends on the severity of the symptoms. If the pain feels unbearable or your child shows signs of an ear infection, then we’d recommend booking a doctor’s appointment as soon as possible, who may prescribe antibiotics or ear drops.
Even if you’re just dealing with the signs of an ear infection for the standard 3 days, that recovery period can feel much longer due to the pain or discomfort. To alleviate some of that pain, adults can take paracetamol or ibuprofen.
Children, on the other hand, can take either ibuprofen or Calpol, depending on which ear infections symptoms are more discomforting. For example, ibuprofen can be used to bring down high temperatures, whereas Calpol is better suited to pain relief. Don’t worry if you’re unsure about what to give your children, you can always consult a medical professional or a pharmacist for advice on earache relief.
Home remedies for an ear infection
The majority of infections improve without any treatment, but there are some things you can do at home to relieve ear infection symptoms.
Most of these home remedies for an ear infection are safe to use on patients of any age, but always observe extra caution when helping little ones showing signs of an ear infection.
1. Cold compress
A cold compress is a quick and easy ear infection treatment for at home. You can buy these from most supermarkets and pharmacies – or, alternatively, it’s quite straightforward to make your own at home.
If you already have your cold compress, simply apply it to the affected area for earache relief. Try to hold it for 10 to 15 minutes to give it time to soothe the area and bring down any swelling in the affected area.
To make your own cold compress earache remedy, simply fill a sealable bag with ice and wrap it in a dry cloth to protect your skin from direct exposure to the ice.
In the meantime, use pain relievers, such as Ibuprofen or paracetamol, to help relieve any pain or discomfort, but children under 16 should not take aspirin.
While this ear infection remedy works for everyone, distraction is particularly useful tool for children showing signs of an ear infection.
The trick is to distract your child as much as possible. This could include watching movies together, reading a book, or offering their favourite snack as a temporary distraction from the pain. You know your child best, so think about what they enjoy doing the most.
Remember that your child's ears may feel very sensitive to touch and sound, so avoid noisy, busy places and concentrate on soothing distraction techniques instead.
3. Neck exercises
When pressure builds up in the ear canal from the infection, it can be quite painful. But did you know that stretching your neck could help alleviate some of the more painful signs of an ear infection?
One easy ear infection remedy is a neck rotation exercise. To do this, simply stand up straight and keep your feet shoulder width apart and gently rotate your neck until it meets your shoulder. Then, gently rotate the other way until your neck meets your opposite shoulder, repeating this as many times as is comfortable for you.
It might seem simple enough, but the connection between the neck, jaw, and ear means these neck rotations could reduce built-up pressure and provide earache relief.
4. Tweak your sleeping position
Resting up and getting a good night’s sleep is one of the best home remedies for most afflictions. However, this simple task can feel almost impossible when you’re suffering from the pain of an ear infection.
Don’t worry though, there are always ways to sleep with an ear infection that can minimise the pain.
For example, it is always best to avoid sleeping on the infected ear or your back as this can increase pressure, making the pain worse. You should also elevate your ear as much as possible with extra pillows to help drainage and ease a bit of that pressure, making for an easier rest. This is also a great ear infection remedy for children who are struggling to get to sleep due to the pain.
If you’re still struggling to get to sleep with an ear infection, take a look at our best and worst foods for sleep article to see how you can maximise the chances of nodding off naturally.
Note that it's imperative not to put anything in the ear in an attempt to relieve the pressure or clean it out. Ears are generally very fragile regions, especially during an infection. Try to steer clear of putting anything other than prescribed medications or specially designed ear buds in your ears to help avoid or relieve ear infection symptoms.
Now you know what an ear infection feels like, you can try some of these ear infection remedies for yourself. Alternatively, if you want to know more about when it’s time to see a GP, or you’re after tips to take better care of your ears, then head over to our Be Healthy hub.
Medically reviewed by Llinos Connolly in November 2023.