Ear infection – acute : Symptoms & Signs, Diagnosis & Tests

Symptoms & Signs

In infants, the clearest sign is often irritability and inconsolable crying. Many infants and children develop a fever or have trouble sleeping. Parents often think that tugging on the ear is a symptom of an ear infection, but studies have shown that the same number of children going to the doctor tug on the ear whether or not the ear is infected.

Symptoms in older children or adults include:

  • Ear pain or earache
  • Fullness in the ear
  • Feeling of general illness
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Hearing loss in the affected ear

The child may have symptoms of a cold, or the ear infection may start shortly after having a cold.

All acute ear infections include fluid behind the eardrum. You can use an electronic ear monitor, such as EarCheck, to detect this fluid at home. The device is available at pharmacies, but you still need to see your doctor to confirm any possible ear infection.

Diagnosis & Tests

The doctor will ask questions about whether your child (or you) have had ear infections in the past and will want you to describe the current symptoms, including whether your child has had any symptoms of a cold or allergies recently. Your doctor will examine your child’s throat, sinuses, head, neck, and lungs.

Using an instrument called an otoscope, the doctor will look inside your child’s ears. If infected, there may be areas of dullness or redness or there may be air bubbles or fluid behind the eardrum. The fluid may be bloody or purulent (filled with pus). The physician will also check for any sign of perforation (hole or holes) in the eardrum.

A hearing test may be recommended if your child has had persistent (chronic and recurrent) ear infections.


Review Date : 6/2/2009
Reviewed By : Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.

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