Can An Ear Infection Go Away On Its Own?

Ear infections are a pain in the, well, ear for many Americans. Children are especially susceptible to ear infections, so you may have experienced one firsthand growing up. Roughly five out of six children aged 3 years old or under will have one, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD).

As it turns out, ear infections have impacted humans for thousands of years. Recent research out of Tel Aviv University uncovered an ear infection in the remains of a human skull determined to be some 15,000 years old. As time passed, morbidity due to ear infections declined and rose again 6,000 years ago largely due to humans living more communally in highly populated home environments where hygiene was poor. As late as the 20th century, ear infections developed into chronic conditions that could even lead to hearing loss, until antibiotics were developed to treat them.

Even though ear infections can potentially lead to serious outcomes, the National Health Service (NHS) states that ear infections tend to go away on their own in roughly three days, although symptoms could persist for about a week. Ear infection symptoms often emerge suddenly. Besides experiencing ear pain, you may be developing an ear infection if you have a high temperature, are feeling low-energy, have issues hearing, your ear emits a discharge, or if you notice a sense of fullness or pressure within your ear and itching or scaliness around your ear.

The different types of ear infections

Though there are numerous types of ear infections, experts at NY Allergy & Science Centers (NYASC) explain that ear infections fall into three main categories: acute otitis media, otitis media with effusion, and otitis externa. Though these infections differ in the areas they infect, they share many symptoms, such as ear pain, ear drainage, fever, headaches, a feeling of fullness in the ear, and hearing loss, among others.

Acute otitis media (AOM) impacts the middle ear, which is located behind the eardrum. AOM occurs due to the eustachian tube becoming blocked, preventing normal drainage. This type of ear infection is often due to a cold and becomes exacerbated as the fluid builds up and possibly becomes infected. Those with allergies are at higher risk because allergens can lead to congestion and swelling of the eustachian tube. Most common in young children, otitis media with effusion (OME) is when non-infected fluid backs up in the middle ear, most likely due to a cold or upper respiratory infection. Children's Hospital of Philadelphia explains that children between three months and six years are more predisposed to OME due to their eustachian tubes being immature. Lastly, otitis externa is an infection of the outer part of the ear canal. Known colloquially as "swimmer's ear," typically only one ear will experience this type of ear infection. You can protect yourself from swimmer's ear by wearing a swimmer's cap and ear plugs and generally being mindful to always keep the ears dry, per NYASC.

Ear infections: diagnosis and treatment

Though ear infections often go away on their own, the doctors at Florida Otolaryngology Group state that there are certain situations when you should see a doctor for an ear infection. For instance, if symptoms linger beyond three days, that's a sign that it might be time to see a healthcare specialist. Additionally, you should contact a medical professional if you are experiencing a fever of 100.4 or more, you have bloody fluid or pus discharge coming from your ear, or you're feeling dizzy, off-balance, or nauseated.

Your doctor can usually determine an ear infection based on your collection of symptoms. Even so, to confirm, they may conduct an exam followed by tests, according to the experts at the Mayo Clinic. For the exam, your doctor will use a specialized instrument called a pneumatic otoscope. This tool emits a small puff of air, allowing the doctor to determine if there is fluid build-up based on whether or not the eardrum exhibits movement. If the eardrum remains stationary, that means there is fluid buildup in the middle ear behind the eardrum. If the results are inconclusive, a doctor may administer a test that measures the movement of the eardrum (tympanometry) or one that measures how well sound resonates from the eardrum (acoustic reflectometry).

Once diagnosed, your doctor may decide to wait a few days to see if the infection subsides before recommending other therapies or procedures. To manage ear pain your doctor may suggest over-the-counter medications or anesthetic drops.