What’s the Difference Between the Flu and an Ear Infection?

How are ear infections different than the flu and how can you tell the two apart? Let’s use some of the content from iTriage to learn about ear infections and review some of the key differences.


A middle ear infection or inflammation is the most common cause of earaches. It is frequently caused by viral infections, but bacteria can also be involved. Most infections resolve without antibiotics. A blocked eustacian tube (the tube that drains the middle ear into the throat) can increase the risk of acquiring the infection.


Ear pain, fullness in the ear, feeling of general illness, vomiting, diarrhea, hearing loss in the affected ear, room spinning, dizziness. Infants may display increased fussiness, poor feeding, fever, crying.


A history and physical exam will be performed. Direct examination of the ear will demonstrate redness of the ear drum and fluid behind the ear.


Most ear infections will clear up on their own without antibiotics. Antibiotics are prescribed for persistent symptoms. Pain medications, nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory medications/NSAIDs (ibuprofen/Motrin or Advil, naproxen/Naprosyn) and acetaminophen (Tylenol) are administered for pain. A tube to drain the middle ear may be placed for severe or recurrent infections.

The key indicators of inner ear infections are pain in the ear, some other cold symptoms, and occasionally, fever. Most cases do not involve chills, muscle aches, or cough; all of which are common with the flu.

The most definitive way to determine the difference between the flu and ear infections is to get a flu swab test to rule out flu and then perform a physical exam of the inner ear with an otoscope. Findings will be suggestive of fluid or pus behind the ear drum affected with pain, redness of the ear drum, and decreased movement of the ear drum with insufflation (blowing air into the ear drum). These exams can be done at urgent care clinics, emergency departments, or at your primary care doctor’s office. You can use iTriage to find these providers anywhere in the United States.

If you’re interested in avoiding the flu altogether, you can get a convenient and affordable flu shot at Healthcare Clinics at select Walgreens. You can easily book a Walgreens appointment through iTriage online or on your smartphone.