What is an Ear Infection?

What is an Ear Infection?

An ear infection, also called acute otitis media, most often occurs when bacteria or a virus cause a middle ear infection. The middle ear is located just behind the eardrum and contains tiny bones inside the ear. Ear infections are one of the most common reasons a child should see a doctor to relieve pain through treatment.

Types of Ear Infections


There are different types of ear infections which vary depending on their location and cause:

  • Otitis media is the most common type and happens most often in children. Otitis media with effusion occurs when fluid builds up in the middle ear but is not infected.
  • Otitis externa, also known as "swimmer's ear," is an outer ear canal infection.
  • Labyrinthitis are inner ear infections and are most often caused by a virus.
  • Vestibular neuritis is inflammation of the vestibulocochlear nerve, causing dizziness and vertigo.

Signs & Symptoms of an Ear Infection


The signs and symptoms of an ear infection may differ according to where the infection is located and may include:

  • Ear pain
  • Fever
  • Irritability or fussiness
  • Tugging at the ear
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Dizziness and vertigo
  • Loss of balance
  • Fluid draining from the ear
  • A feeling of clogging in the ear
  • Headache
  • Trouble hearing
  • Nausea/vomiting

A pediatrician or other primary care doctor can assess the symptoms of an ear infection to determine their cause. The physician will let you know if you need to see a specialist, such as an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat or ENT doctor).

NewYork-Presbyterian's ENT specialists are experts at evaluating baby ear infection symptoms and match each patient with the best treatment. We also offer expert care for adult ear infections.

What Causes Ear Infections?


Most ear infections are caused by bacteria or viruses. They happen when the eustachian tube gets blocked. This tube runs from the middle of each ear to the back of the throat and normally drains fluid made in the middle ear. Blockage can result in fluid build-up and lead to an infection.

Ear infections are more common in infants and children because the eustachian tubes are narrower and more horizontal, making them prone to fluid collection if the child has a cold, flu, or allergies. The infection can spread up the tube and into the middle ear.

Risk Factors for Ear Infections

Risk Factors

There may be a greater risk of ear infections in people who:

  • Are age six months to two years
  • Have allergies
  • Experience frequent colds or sinus infections
  • Have infected or enlarged adenoids in the upper throat
  • Are exposed to tobacco smoke
  • Live in cold climates or are exposed to changes in altitude or climate

Ear infections are more common in children who:

  • Drink from a sippy cup or bottle while lying down, which allows milk to back up into the eustachian tube
  • Attend day care regularly
  • Are not breastfed
  • Use a pacifier
  • Have cleft palate, which interferes with eustachian tube drainage



Many ear infections clear up on their own, but some require antibiotics to get better. Ear infections that get worse or come back frequently can cause:

  • Trouble hearing, which can interfere with a child's speech development
  • Ruptured eardrum, which can occur if fluid builds up too much, leaving a small hole that typically heals on its own
  • Ongoing inflammation of the middle ear, causing pus drainage
  • Rare infections such as acute mastoiditis (inflammation of the bony protrusion behind the ear) or meningitis (infection of the membranes surrounding the brain)

Ear Infection Prevention


While some ear infections are unavoidable, there are some steps you can take to reduce the risk of developing one. Steps you can take to help prevent ear infections include:

  • Infants and small children should not drink milk from a sippy cup or bottle while lying down.
  • Avoid second-hand tobacco smoke.
  • Breastfeed your baby if possible for at least 6 months.
  • Reduce the risk of the common cold, flu, and other illnesses by washing hands frequently.
  • Stay up to date on immunizations, such as the flu vaccine.
  • If you have allergies, take any medications or follow any practices recommended by your doctor to manage your symptoms.
  • Dry ears thoroughly after swimming.
Get Care

Trust NewYork-Presbyterian for Ear Infection Care

If you or your child is experiencing symptoms of a possible ear infection, you can schedule an in-person visit or telehealth appointment with a primary care provider at a NewYork-Presbyterian campus or a NewYork-Presbyterian medical group location.

We offer same-day appointments for those with urgent needs, convenient early, late, and weekend hours, connection with our patient portal, and referrals to NewYork-Presbyterian specialists. Most insurances are accepted. Make an appointment today—we'll match you with the most effective treatment so you or your child can start feeling better.