You may have an ear infection if you’re experiencing pain in your ear, a fever, or difficulty hearing. Ear infections are very common and can be treated effectively with antibiotics.
Ear infections are one of the most common reasons people go to the doctor, but when exactly should you see a doctor, and should you go to urgent care for an ear infection?
In this blog post, we will discuss when to seek medical help for your ear infection as well as if and when it is necessary to go to urgent care.
Table of Contents
- When to Seek Medical Help for an Ear Infection or Ear Pain?
- Can You Go to Urgent Care for an Ear Infection?
- When to Go to Urgent Care for an Ear Infection?
- Seek Help From Virtual Urgent Care!
- Key Takeaways
When to Seek Medical Help for an Ear Infection or Ear Pain?
Most ear infections do not begin in the ear. Instead, they start in the nose or throat. Germs from colds and flu enter the eustachian canals at the back of the mouth and then migrate up to the middle ear where they cause infection. As such, ear infections themselves aren’t usually contagious.
Pain from ear infections typically comes on fast but doesn’t usually last more than a day or two in healthy adults. However, if your pain doesn’t go away in a few days, you should go to the doctor. Pain that persists is unusual and suggests a complication.
When you go to the doctor’s office, your doctor will assess the severity of your ear infection. They will then determine whether bacteria or viruses are causing it. If it is bacterial, they may prescribe antibiotics to help the body clear the infection. If you are returning to the clinic because the first round of antibiotics didn’t work, they may offer different medications, such as ear drops.
However, if the infection is viral in nature, they may simply tell you to go home, rest, and take on plenty of fluids. Symptoms should eventually resolve themselves unless you have a weakened immune system.
An isolated ear infection is unlikely to cause hearing loss in adults. However, recurrent infections can increase the risk. Therefore, if you get an ear infection that doesn’t resolve itself quickly, or you have several in a row, you should consult your physician.
If your child is under six months old and has an ear infection, you should take them to the doctor as a priority. Ear infections are more serious for young infants.
Can You Go to Urgent Care for an Ear Infection?
Most urgent care clinics and emergency rooms prefer ear infection patients to go to their primary care provider first. However, if symptoms are severe, urgent care may be a better option.
Most ear infections do not have serious complications. However, studies show that some patients can develop dangerous symptoms. In these cases, patients require rapid medical attention to prevent symptoms from worsening and permanent damage to the structures of the ears.
When to Go to Urgent Care for an Ear Infection?
Here are some situations where you should seek urgent medical care for an ear infection:
Fever Above 103°F
Fever is a common symptom of ear infections. You should contact your healthcare provider if your fever goes higher than 103°F or 39.4°C. Fevers above 104°F are dangerous and can lead to coma.
Around 50 percent of children who contract ear infections will develop a fever. High temperature is less common in adults.
If you have an earache and a stiff neck, it could indicate spinal or aseptic meningitis. These conditions can become life-threatening rapidly, so you should seek medical attention immediately.
Spinal meningitis occurs when the fluid membranes around the brain and spinal cord become infected. Once the infection begins, it spreads quickly throughout the body and can be fatal within 24 hours of onset.
Aseptic meningitis is caused by viruses or fungal spores. Like spinal meningitis, it leads to serious inflammation of the brain and can be fatal.
The combination of earache and stiff neck may not indicate serious disease, though. Temporomandibular joint (TMJ) disorder can produce the same symptoms but does not require emergency treatment.
Mild hearing loss is a common symptom of ear infections and typically goes away quickly once the infection subsides. It occurs because of inflammation and fluid buildup in the middle ear.
However, if you have a history of repeated ear infections and you notice your hearing loss becoming dramatically worse, you should seek urgent medical care. Recurrent ear infections can lead to significant hearing loss and permanent damage to the structures of the ear. In children, it may produce speech or developmental delays.
Pain That Doesn’t Go Away After a Few Days
Ear infection pain should go away within a few days. If it doesn’t or continues to get worse, you should go to an urgent care provider. Persistent discomfort could indicate extreme pressure buildup in the middle ear that might damage your ear drum.
If you have severe pain that stops suddenly, you may have a ruptured ear drum. Again, you should contact your urgent care provider immediately for diagnosis and treatment.
Severe acute ear infections can produce facial paralysis due to pressure on nerves that connect to the face. They can also generate weakness or numbness in the surrounding area. According to research, between 1 and 3.5 percent of ear infection patients will exhibit this symptom, based on the type of infection they have.
Regardless of ear-related symptoms, all patients with facial paralysis should seek immediate medical attention. Doctors need to rule out more serious conditions, such as stroke, brain tumors, and Bell’s palsy.
Severe Discharge or Pus From the Ears
Patients should also seek urgent care if they notice ear discharge or pus. This symptom may be a sign of a severe ear infection or an underlying condition. Urgent care is a matter of priority if the discharge is accompanied by hearing loss, dizziness, a recent head injury, or intense pain.
Seek Help From Virtual Urgent Care!
If you believe you need urgent care for an ear infection, you can get it virtually at DrHouse. Our service connects you with a qualified online doctor in 15 minutes or less. The virtual doctor can assess your symptoms, recommend a course of treatment, and even prescribe medication if needed. Get started today!
- Most ear infections do not require urgent care
- Seek urgent care if you have a high fever (over 103°F), stiff neck, hearing difficulties, facial paralysis, or severe discharge from the ears
- Seek urgent medical attention if your earache is severe or suddenly goes away
- If your child has an earache and is under six months old, take them to an urgent care clinic as a precautionary measure, since ear infections are more severe in infants
- You can get urgent care appointments online from DrHouse and avoid waiting rooms
- Noonan, Kathryn Y.∗; Kim, Soo Yeon†; Wong, Lye Yeng†; Martin, Isabella W.†; Schwartzman, Joseph D.†; Saunders, James E.†. Treatment of Ciprofloxacin-resistant Ear Infections. Otology & Neurotology: October 2018 – Volume 39 – Issue 9 – p e837-e842 doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1097/MAO.0000000000001966
- Tambs, Kristian; Hoffman, Howard J.; Engdahl, Bo; Borchgrevink, Hans M.. Hearing Loss Associated With Ear Infections in Nord-Trøndelag, Norway. Ear and Hearing: August 2004 – Volume 25 – Issue 4 – p 388-396 doi: https://www.doi.org/10.1097/01.AUD.0000134554.71093.5E
- George H. McCracken, Diagnosis and management of acute otitis media in the urgent care setting, Annals of Emergency Medicine, Volume 39, Issue 4, 2002, Pages 413-421, ISSN 0196-0644, https://doi.org/10.1067/mem.2002.122772.
- Maroeska M Rovers, Paul Glasziou, Cees L Appelman, Peter Burke, David P McCormick, Roger A Damoiseaux, Isabelle Gaboury, Paul Little, Arno W Hoes, Antibiotics for acute otitis media: a meta-analysis with individual patient data, The Lancet, Volume 368, Issue 9545, 2006, Pages 1429-1435, ISSN 0140-6736, https://doi.org/10.1016/S0140-6736(06)69606-2.
- Ear Infection (Otitis Media), Cleveland Clinic. Available from: https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/8613-ear-infection-otitis-media
- Ear infection (middle ear), Mayo Clinic. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ear-infections/symptoms-causes/syc-20351616
- Choi JW, Park YH. Facial Nerve Paralysis in Patients With Chronic Ear Infections: Surgical Outcomes and Radiologic Analysis. Clin Exp Otorhinolaryngol. 2015;8(3):218-223. doi:https://www.doi.org/10.3342/ceo.2015.8.3.218
DrHouse articles are written by MDs, NPs, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals. The contents of the DrHouse site are for informational purposes only and are not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you are experiencing high fever (>103F/39.4C), shortness of breath, difficulty breathing, chest pain, heart palpitations, abnormal bruising, abnormal bleeding, extreme fatigue, dizziness, new weakness or paralysis, difficulty with speech, confusion, extreme pain in any body part, or inability to remain hydrated or keep down fluids or feel you may have any other life-threatening condition, please go to the emergency department or call 911 immediately.