January 23, 2019
Doctor examining ear of senior woman

Ear Infections: Not Just for Kids

by Berkeley Wellness  

Though most people associate ear infections with children, adults get them too. Here’s what you should know.

What are the most common types of ear infections?

Inflammation or infection in the external ear canal is called otitis externa; when in the middle ear (the area behind the eardrum), it’s called otitis media. You can have both an outer and middle ear infection at the same time. Children are far more likely to get middle ear infections than adults, primarily because their Eustachian tubes (the ducts that connect the back of the nose to the middle ear), as well as their immune systems, are not fully developed.

What causes outer ear infections?

Usually bacteria, sometimes fungi. In adults, outer ear infections most commonly occur when water gets trapped in the outer ear canal, often from swimming or diving (called “swimmer’s ear), but also possibly from bathing. The longer the water stays in the ear, the more likely that any microorganisms present will multiply. Outer ear infections can also occur with chronic skin conditions such as eczema or seborrheic dermatitis. Inserting anything into the outer ear—an ear plug, a hearing aid, a cotton swab, even your fingernail—can provoke an infection if it breaks or abrades the skin, or if it pushes wax deeper into the ear canal.

What causes middle ear infections?

They can be set off by anything that causes blockage of the Eustachian tubes and fluid accumulation in the middle ear—typically a viral infection (like a cold), nasal allergies, sinusitis, or even flying when you have a cold. The fluid can then become infected. People who had recurring childhood ear infections may be more susceptible to middle ear infections later in life, though the infections tend to be less severe in adulthood.

What are the symptoms?

With both outer and middle ear infections, you may have discomfort, pain, a feeling of fullness in the ear, popping, discharge, itching, difficulty hearing, dizziness, and sometimes fever.

Can you get an ear infection from blowing your nose too hard?

Possibly a middle ear infection. If you have an upper respiratory infection with heavy nasal discharge, forcefully blowing your nose may cause infected secretions in the nose to enter your middle ear through the Eustachian tubes, triggering an infection.

How are ear infections diagnosed and treated?

If you think you have an ear infection, see your doctor, who will examine your ear canal and eardrum with a hand-held otoscope, and perhaps clean out wax to see better. Outer ear infections are treated with various drops, including those containing antibiotics or anti-inflammatory compounds. If you have a middle ear infection you may need oral antibiotics instead (drops will not cure it). Other medications, including decongestants, may also be recommended to treat an underlying cold, sinus condition, or allergy, or to otherwise reduce swelling in the Eustachian tubes.

How can you avoid swimmer’s ear?

If you swim frequently, wear a well-fitted bathing cap to keep water out of your ears. Special ear plugs, sold in surf shops, sporting-goods stores, some drugstores, and on the Internet, come in different sizes for accurate fitting, are non-irritating, and are vented to allow for better hearing and balance. After swimming (and showering) shake your head to remove trapped water, and dry your outer ear thoroughly with a small towel. You can also use a blow dryer (go easy on the heat) to dry your ears. Drops containing rubbing alcohol or acetic acid (vinegar) may help as well.

How else can you prevent ear infections?

Obviously, don’t put anything in your ears that should not be there. If you want to use cotton swabs (on occasion) to clean your ears, don’t insert them deep into the ear canal, and use them gently. If you had ear infections when you were a child and still get them, see an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor for proper treatment.

See also: Earwax Removal: Is Ear Candling Safe?