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How do I Tell the Difference Between an Ear Infection and a Cold?

Nicole Madison
Updated May 17, 2024
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Sometimes it is difficult to tell the difference between an earache caused by a cold and ear pain that is caused by an ear infection. The major difference between an ear infection and a cold is that the ear pain caused by a common cold is usually accompanied by symptoms of a cold. For example, you may have a runny nose, green or yellow mucus, and a sore throat with a cold. The earache in such a case may develop gradually and go away on its own. When ear pain is caused by an ear infection, however, pain may develop suddenly and be severe.

One of the reasons it can be so difficult to tell the difference between an ear infection and a cold is that ear infections often develop in relation to a cold. You may, for example, have common symptoms of a cold and eventually develop an earache as well. The earache may be a minor symptom of the cold or a complication of the cold that has resulted in infection. One way to tell the difference, in some cases, is if the ear pain develops along with a sudden fever. Fever by itself, however, is not an accurate indication of the cause of your ear pain, as a fever may develop with both a basic cold and an ear infection.

While it’s not usually possible to note the difference between an ear infection and a cold based on a fever alone, your temperature may help to confirm your suspicions that you have an ear infection. Often colds are not accompanied by fevers or are only accompanied by low-grade fevers. Ear infections, however, are more likely to cause higher fevers. For example, it is common to have a fever of up to 104 degrees Fahrenheit (40 degrees Celsius) with an ear infection.

There are some symptoms that may be more likely to occur if you have an ear infection rather than a cold. For example, you may lose your appetite or have a hard time sleeping when you have an ear infection. You may also have drainage from your ear, hearing difficulties, and irritability. An ear infection may even lead to symptoms of vertigo.

Since it can be so difficult to tell the difference between an ear infection and a cold, you may feel more comfortable with taking a better-safe-than-sorry approach. If you have cold symptoms and a painful and persistent earache, you may visit your doctor for an examination. Your doctor will likely use a medical tool called an otoscope to determine whether you are dealing with pain caused by a cold or an infection in your ear.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Nicole Madison
By Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a WiseGeek writer, where she focuses on topics like homeschooling, parenting, health, science, and business. Her passion for knowledge is evident in the well-researched and informative articles she authors. As a mother of four, Nicole balances work with quality family time activities such as reading, camping, and beach trips.
Discussion Comments
By Rotergirl — On Feb 21, 2014

Fever is often a symptom, along with pressure on the ear, etc. For people who can take NSAIDs, take two Naprox and see if you get any relief. If you do, it might just be pressure, which the anti-inflammatory relieved.

Also, a cold will improve in a few days. Ear infections just keep hurting. If you don't have any improvement in the ear pain, see a doctor. You don't want an ear infection to turn into something more serious, like osteomyelitis, which is when the bone gets infected. Persistent pain and fever should get you out the door and into your doctor's office.

Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison
Nicole Madison's love for learning inspires her work as a WiseGeek writer, where she focuses on topics like...
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