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Is Your Earache Just a Cold or an Ear Infection?


How Are Earaches From a Cold or Ear Infection Treated?

An ear infection is usually treatable, and permanent damage to the ear or to the hearing is much less common today with proper treatment. Treatment may include medications for pain and fever, antibiotics for bacterial ear infections, and/or observation of symptoms.

  • Pain relief for an earache. Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help relieve an earache with a cold or a fever over 102 degrees F. These medications usually control the ear pain within one to two hours. (Earaches tend to hurt more at bedtime.)
  • Antibiotics for an ear infection. Prescribed antibiotics will kill the bacteria causing the ear infection. They are not needed to treat an earache due to a cold or a virus. Antibiotics may cause nausea, diarrhea, rashes, or yeast infections and may interact with other drugs.
  • Myringotomy (ear tubes) to relieve ear fluid. If fluid remains in the ear for more than three months or if your child has repeated ear infections, your doctor may insert small metal or plastic tubes through the eardrum to help keep the ear free of fluid and infection. This outpatient procedure is usually performed on children and is done under general anesthesia. The tubes usually remain in from eight to 18 months and normally fall out on their own. In some instances, the doctor may choose to leave the tubes in longer.

What Happens if an Ear Infection Is Left Untreated?

Left untreated, a middle ear infection can have long-term effects that include the following:

  • Inner ear infection
  • Scarring of the eardrum
  • Hearing loss
  • Mastoiditis (infection of the skull behind the ear)
  • Meningitis (infection in the tissues around the brain and spinal cord)
  • Speech development problems in children
  • Facial paralysis

Call Your Child's Doctor Immediately If:

  • Your child develops a stiff neck.
  • You child acts very tired, responds poorly, or cannot be consoled.

Call Your Child's Doctor During Business Hours If:

  • Your child's fever or pain is not gone 48 hours after starting antibiotics. 
  • You have any questions or concerns.
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