Ear infections are common in children, but adults can get them too. An ear infection occurs when a bacterial or viral infection affects the middle ear — the space behind the eardrum. This leads to inflammation and buildup of fluid inside the ear.
Adult ear infections have some distinct symptoms and cause compared to childhood ear infections. Prompt diagnosis and treatment are important to relieve pain and prevent complications.
Ear Infection In Adults: Symptoms
The main symptoms of an ear infection in adults include:
- Ear pain – A dull, throbbing ache is common. The pain may be severe and worsen when you tug on the outer ear.
- Pressure or fullness in the ear – It may feel like the ear is plugged.
- Hearing loss – Fluid buildup prevents sound waves from properly moving through the middle ear. Hearing loss may be partial or total.
- Ringing in the ear (tinnitus) – This ringing or buzzing is caused by inflammation pressing on inner ear nerves.
- Drainage from the ear – Yellow, brown, or blood-tinged discharge might drain from the ear if the eardrum ruptures.
- Dizziness or vertigo – Infection may spread to the inner ear, causing a sensation of the room spinning.
- Fever – Adults rarely have a high fever with ear infections. But a mild or low-grade fever of around 100°F is possible.
In rare cases, the infection can spread and cause stiff neck, confusion, or seizures. This requires emergency care.
What Are The Causes Of Ear Infection In Adults?
Several factors can allow bacteria or viruses to infect the lining of the middle ear and cause inflammation. Common causes of ear infections in adults include:
- Cold, flu, or sinus infection – Viruses like influenza, adenovirus, or rhinovirus often spread from the nose and throat into the Eustachian tubes and middle ear.
- Hay fever and allergies – Allergens and mucus drips can plug the Eustachian tubes and allow fluid buildup.
- Swimming or bathing – Getting water trapped in the ear can introduce bacteria. People who swim frequently are at higher risk.
- Air travel – Changes in air pressure during flights can cause pain and congestion.
- Smoking – Chemicals in smoke irritate the Eustachian tubes.
- Weak immune system – Conditions like HIV, diabetes, and cancer chemotherapy can impair the immune response to viruses and bacteria.
- Ear surgery or procedures – Cleaning ear wax or inserting tubes can potentially introduce infection.
- Previous infections – Having recurring bouts of swimmer’s ear or childhood ear infections raise adulthood risk.
Ear Infection In Adults: Diagnosis
If ear infection symptoms arise, it’s important to see a doctor, especially with severe pain or hearing loss. The physician will examine the ears with an otoscope to visualize the eardrum. Signs of infection include:
Hearing tests may be done to evaluate the type and degree of hearing loss. Imaging like CT or MRI scans are sometimes needed to inspect for complications like mastoiditis. The doctor may also take a sample of discharge from the ear with a swab to identify the infectious bacteria or viruses. Common culprits include Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Moraxella catarrhalis bacteria.
Treatment For Ear Infection In Adults
Mild ear infections may start to improve in a few days with supportive treatments:
- Pain relievers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen to ease aches
- Applying warm compresses over the affected ear
- Using over-the-counter ear drops – These may help relieve pain but won’t treat the infection.
Most cases require antibiotics, which can be given orally or sometimes through the eardrum. Antibiotics commonly used include:
It’s important to finish the entire antibiotic course as directed, even if symptoms improve sooner. Pain medications are also commonly given along with antibiotics. Oral or topical steroids like prednisone may help reduce inflammation and pressure from swollen tissues.
In severe cases, surgery may be needed to drain the infection if antibiotics don’t work. Seek prompt medical care if symptoms don’t start improving within a couple of days of starting treatment.
Ear infections can occur in adults of any age and pose a nuisance ranging from mild to severe. The main symptoms to watch for are ear pain, drainage, hearing loss, dizziness, and fever. Common causes include respiratory infections, allergies, water exposure, smoking, and prior ear issues.
Seeking prompt medical attention is crucial for proper diagnosis and effective antibiotics or other treatments to eliminate the infection. With appropriate care, most adult ear infections can be cured without lasting effects. But prompt attention is key to preventing rare complications like deafness or serious tissue damage.
A: Ear infections themselves are not contagious. However, the viruses and bacteria that cause them can be contagious. Colds, flu, strep, and other bugs can spread from person to person and sometimes trigger an ear infection as a secondary effect.
A: With appropriate oral or topical antibiotics, ear pain, and other symptoms should start improving within the first 1-2 days. Complete recovery usually takes around 7-10 days, but it’s crucial to finish the entire antibiotic course as prescribed even if you feel better sooner.
A: Seek medical attention as soon as possible if ear pain, drainage, hearing changes or other concerning symptoms arise. Prompt antibiotics and treatment increase the chances of curing the infection faster and avoiding complications. Seek emergency care if you experience sudden hearing loss, severe pain, high fever, stiff neck, dizziness, or other alarming symptoms.
A: Unfortunately yes, it’s possible to experience recurring ear infections, especially if the underlying cause remains. Things like Eustachian tube dysfunction, allergies, or prior ear procedures can make some people prone to repeat infections. See an ENT specialist if you get 3 or more ear infections in a year to help determine if an underlying factor needs to be addressed.
A: Home remedies like warm compresses, OTC pain relievers, and nasal decongestants may provide some symptomatic relief. But antibiotics and prescription medications are usually still needed to fully cure the infection. Home treatments shouldn’t delay seeing a doctor, especially with severe symptoms.