The most common ear infection symptoms depend on whether the person with the infection is an adult or child as well as which part of the ear is infected. In children who aren't yet fully verbal, it may be difficult to recognize the symptoms of an ear infection. If ear infection symptoms are suspected in a child or an adult, medical help should be sought immediately. A doctor can usually quickly determine if an ear problem such as an infection is present in one of the ear's three main sections.
The outer, middle and inner sections make up the main parts of the ear. The outer part includes what is visible to the naked eye — the outside ear with the earlobe. The opening in the outer ear leads to the middle ear. The middle ear is an air pocket surrounded by bones that connect the inner ear and eardrum. The inner ear contains nerves that control hearing and balance, while the skin layer called the eardrum vibrates to send sound waves throughout the ear.
Swimmer's ear, or otitis externa, is an infection of the outer ear and the least serious type of ear infection. The ear infection symptoms typical of otitis externa are strong pain and tender earlobes, but the ear may also be itchy. A discharge of yellow or gray pus from the ear is a sign that the infection has advanced. The discharge may have a foul odor. Swimmer's ear is common in older children and adults and may be caused when bacteria and water enter the ear during swimming.
A middle ear infection, or otitis media, is caused by a bacterial or viral infection spread by an illness such as a cold or respiratory infection. Otitis media is especially common in children, and middle ear infection symptoms may cause a child to grab at his or her ears and be more irritable than usual. A child with a middle ear infection may have trouble sleeping as well as difficulty hearing. For example, he or she may fail to notice softer sounds. A fever or fluid around the ear may be present in children with otitis media.
Adults with otitis media may experience dizziness, a loss of balance and/or a loss of hearing. The lining of the middle ear swells when infections are present and a stuffed-up feeling is one of the most common ear infection symptoms. Whether the person experiencing symptoms of an ear infection is an adult or child, medical help should be sought as soon as possible. If not treated, a middle ear infection could spread to the inner ear causing a much more serious infection.