Ear Infection
Symptoms, Causes, Related Conditions, Questions & Related Topics

May Also Be Known as:

  • Ear ache
  • Otitis media
  • Labyrinthitis
  • Swimmer’s ear



Possible Symptoms of Ear Infections

There are three main types of ear infections: infection of the outer ear (swimmer's ear), infection of the middle ear (otitis media), and infection of the inner ear (labyrinthitis).[1]

Outer ear infection symptoms might include pain, redness, swelling, itching, or discharge from the ears.[2]

Someone with a middle ear infection might experience symptoms such as pain, fever, trouble hearing, ringing in ears, discharge from ears, nasal congestion, loss of appetite, nausea, or trouble sleeping.[3]

Inner ear infection symptoms include dizziness, vertigo, nausea, and vomiting.[1]

Top 5 Ear Infection Causes

1. Water in Ears

An outer ear infection, commonly known as swimmer’s ear, is often a result of water trapped in the ear canal.[2] Trapped fluid can act as a breeding ground for bacteria, triggering an ear infection. Children, athletes, and frequent swimmers are more likely to develop swimmer’s ear.

2. Inserting Objects Into Ears

Some ear infections develop from scratches inside the ear canal.[4] Inserting any type of foreign object into the ear can cause an infection. Avoid inserting anything into your ear canals, including cotton swabs. Cotton swabs can strip away the ear wax, which forms a protective barrier in your ear canals.[4] Keeping your ears especially clean might seem like a good way to avoid an infection, but using cotton swabs in your ears can actually make your ears more prone to infection.

3. Respiratory Disease and Disorders

Many people develop ear infections after having a cold or the flu. Allergies, sinus infections, and other conditions that cause sinus congestion can also trigger ear infections.[5] When your sinuses or ears become congested, mucus and other fluids might not drain well. These trapped fluids serve as a breeding ground for bacteria and cause infection.

4. Viral Infections

A variety of viral infections cause ear infections. Viruses are an especially common cause of inner ear infections.[6] Mild infections sometimes cause your inner ear to become inflamed, triggering symptoms of dizziness and nausea. Most viral infections clear up on their own, but some require antiviral medications.[6]

5. Bacterial Infections

Bacterial infections are responsible for many types of ear infections. While bacterial infections often clear on their own, antibiotics are sometimes necessary.[5] If you have a bacterial infection, you might have a fever or see fluid draining from your ears. Your doctor might notice pus or other fluid trapped inside your ear canal.

5 Ways to Prevent Ear Infections

1. Keep Your Ears Dry

When swimming or participating in water sports, avoid getting water inside your ears.[4] If you or your child is especially prone to ear infections, it could be helpful to wear earplugs. Be sure to use new or sanitized ear plugs each time to avoid introducing germs into the ear. Wash your hands before inserting them, and never share earplugs. Unsanitary earplugs can introduce germs into your ear canal and lead to infection.[7]

2. Don’t Blow Your Nose Too Hard

If you have a cold or allergies, you might be tempted to keep blowing your nose to clear your sinuses. However, blowing your nose too hard can force fluid and bacteria into the ear canal.[8] Blow your nose gently, one nostril at a time.

3. Don’t Insert Objects Into Your Ear

It’s never a good idea to put any foreign object, including cotton swabs, into your ear without a doctor’s permission. Putting an object into your ear can scratch your ear canal and lead to infection.[4]

4. Keep the Air in Your Home Clean

Irritants such as cigarette smoke, pollen, and dust can increase your likelihood of developing an ear infection.[5] If you smoke, try to quit. If someone else in the home smokes, ask them to do so outside. Ask your doctor about other devices or products that can help improve air quality in your home.

5. Limit the Use of Bottles and Pacifiers

Children who use pacifiers or drink from bottles while lying down are more likely to have chronic ear infections.[5] If your child often develops ear infections, ask your pediatrician for advice. They might recommend propping your baby up when using a bottle or pacifier.

Possible Ear Infection Treatment Options

Many ear infections clear up on their own without prescription medications.[5] Mild ear infections can often be treated at home with over-the-counter decongestants and pain relievers. Hot packs, hot water bottles, and heating pads can also provide some pain relief. Speak to your pediatrician before using at-home treatments on an infant or small child.

If your symptoms persist or become worse after a few days, see your doctor. You might need to take antibiotics to clear up the infection.[5] If your doctor prescribed antibiotics, be sure to take the medication as directed. Don’t skip doses, and don’t stop taking the medication without your doctor’s permission.[9]

If you or your child frequently develops ear infections, your doctor might recommend seeing a specialist. An otolaryngologist, or an ENT doctor, specializes in diseases affecting the ears, nose, and throat.[10] These doctors can help determine the cause of your ear infections.

If your child often develops ear infections, they might have a problem with size or shape of their Eustachian tubes. An ENT doctor might recommend a procedure that involves placing special tubes inside your child’s ears. These tubes help open up the Eustachian tubes and allow fluid to drain.[11]

Questions Your Doctor May Ask About Ear Infections

  • How long have you experienced these symptoms?
  • Do you have a fever?
  • Do you feel dizzy?
  • Have you recently injured your ear?
  • How severe is your pain?
  • Do you often get ear infections?
  • Have you recently gone swimming?

Sources

  1. Heathline. Everything You Should Know About Ear Infections in Adults. https://www.healthline.com/health/ear-infection-adults#symptoms
  2. Healthline. Outer Ear Infection (Swimmer’s Ear). https://www.healthline.com/health/otitis-externa#symptoms
  3. Healthline. Middle Ear Infection (Otitis Media). https://www.healthline.com/health/otitis#symptoms
  4. Mayo Clinic. Swimmer’s ear. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/swimmers-ear/symptoms-causes/syc-20351682
  5. Mayo Clinic. Ear infection (middle ear). https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/ear-infections/symptoms-causes/syc-20351616
  6. WebMD. What Is Labyrinthitis? https://www.webmd.com/brain/what-is-labyrinthitis#1
  7. Center for Disease Control. How to Wear Soft Foam Earplugs. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/content/earplug.html
  8. WebMD. What’s the best way to blow your nose when sick? https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/qa/whats-the-best-way-to-blow-your-nose-when-sick
  9. WebMD. What Are Antibiotics? https://www.webmd.com/a-to-z-guides/what-are-antibiotics#1
  10. WebMD. What Is an Otolaryngologist? https://www.webmd.com/cold-and-flu/ear-infection/otolaryngologist-ear-throat#1
  11. Healthline. Ear Tube Insertion. https://www.healthline.com/health/ear-tube-insertion#purpose

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