Most middle ear infections (otitis media) clear up within three to five days and don't need any specific treatment.
You can relieve any pain and a high temperature using over the counter painkillers such as paracetamol and ibuprofen.
Make sure any painkillers you give to your child are appropriate for their age. Read more about giving your child painkillers.
Placing a warm flannel or washcloth over the affected ear may also help relieve pain until the condition passes.
Antibiotics aren't routinely used to treat middle ear infections as there's no evidence that they speed up the healing process. Many cases are caused by viruses, which antibiotics aren't effective against.
Using antibiotics to treat minor bacterial infections also increases the likelihood of bacteria becoming resistant to them over time. This means more serious infections could become untreatable in the future. Read about antibiotic resistance for more information.
If antibiotics are needed, a five-day course of an antibiotic called amoxicillin is usually prescribed. This is often given as a liquid. Common side effects of amoxicillin include:
An alternative antibiotic such as erythromycin or clarithromycin may be used for people allergic to amoxicillin.
In some cases, your GP may give you a prescription that you can choose to pick up a few days later if the condition hasn't improved by then.
Adults and children who develop a long-term middle ear infection (chronic suppurative otitis media) may benefit from short courses of antibiotic ear drops.
Antibiotics are usually only considered if your child:
- has a serious health condition that makes them more vulnerable to complications, such as cystic fibrosis or congenital heart disease
- is less than three months old
- is less than two years old with an infection in both ears
- has discharge coming from their ear
Adults may be prescribed antibiotics if:
- they have a serious health condition that makes them more vulnerable to complications, such as cystic fibrosis or congenital heart disease
- symptoms are showing no signs of improvement after four days
For children with recurrent severe middle ear infections, tiny tubes may be inserted into the eardrum to help drain fluid. These tubes are called grommets.
Grommets are inserted under general anaesthetic, which means your child will be asleep and won't feel any pain. The procedure usually only takes about 15 minutes and your child should be able to go home the same day.
A grommet helps keep the eardrum open for several months. As the eardrum starts to heal, the grommet will slowly be pushed out of the eardrum and eventually falls out. This process happens naturally and shouldn't be painful. Most grommets fall out within six to 12 months of being inserted.
Some children need another procedure to replace the grommets if they're still experiencing problems.
Treatment with grommets isn't routinely funded in all areas or for adults with recurrent otitis media.