What Are Ear Infections & Are They Contagious?
An ear infection is a common condition that occurs when the middle ear, an air-filled space behind the eardrum, becomes inflamed due to either a bacterial or viral infection. While there are several types of middle ear infections, they all have the same characteristic; fluid or mucus builds up, becomes trapped and is unable to drain, causing an infection with a fever, pain, pressure, and/or swelling of the ear among other symptoms.
To answer the primary question, are ear infections contagious, the simple answer is no, they are not. Ear infections themselves are not contagious, but the viruses or bacteria that causes an ear infection can be, if it is spread through sneezing, coughing, or close contact with an infected person. For proper treatment, it’s essential to understand the difference between an ear infection (symptom) and the illnesses (reason) that can cause them.
1. What Are Some Common Triggers for Ear Infections?
Now that you know that ear infections are not contagious, let’s take a look at what can trigger the development of an ear infection. Primary causes include:
A. Common Colds/Sinus Infections/Allergies. A common cold is a viral infection that can affect several parts of the respiratory system, including the middle ear. The eustachian tubes, which connect the middle ear to the back of the throat, help to regulate air pressure and drain fluids. When a cold, a sinus infection, or a bad case of the allergies, causes swelling or blockages in these tubes, the fluid cannot drain properly, leading to a buildup of fluid in the middle ear. This stagnant fluid creates a perfect environment for bacteria or viruses to thrive, leading to an ear infection.
B. Smoking or Exposure to Cigarette Smoke. Inhaling cigarette smoke can increase your risk for developing ear infections because it irritates and causes inflammation in the eustachian tubes, which connect the nose to the middle ear. In addition to this, the toxic substances in the smoke can cause damage to the nasal cavity tissue and cilia in the sinuses, leading to delayed clearance of mucus and fluid buildup. Combine these together and you get an environment for frequent ear infections, which can lead to hearing loss if not addressed properly.
C. Swollen Adenoids. The adenoids are lymphoid tissue that sits near the eustachian tubes. When they become swollen, they can obstruct the tubes leading to ear infections, particularly in children. What happens is the obstruction interferes with how the body ventilates the middle ears, resulting in infections and temporary hearing loss.
D. Air Pressure/Altitude Changes. When there are rapid changes in air pressure at high altitudes, the difference in pressure on either side of the eardrum, causes a lot of tension along your eardrum’s membrane, leading to ear pain, and fluid buildup behind the middle ear, which results in a blockage. In severe cases, the atmospheric pressures are too much, and they can rupture the eardrum entirely. You would typically experience this if you fly on an airplane, or are an avid mountain climber.
2. What Kind of Ear Infection Do I Have?
There are 3 main types of ear infections that you should know about:
A. Otitis Media: Otitis media is a painful middle ear infection that occurs when bacteria or viruses infect the air-filled space behind the eardrum. While it can affect individuals of any age, it is more common in children due to their developing immune systems and smaller eustachian tubes. When left untreated, it can lead to severe complications such as hearing loss, speech problems, and even meningitis. Symptoms of otitis media include ear pain, fever, difficulty hearing, and irritability in infants.
B. Otitis Externa: Otitis externa, commonly known as swimmer’s ear, is a painful infection of the outer ear canal. It is caused by a combination of factors, including exposure to moisture and bacteria in the ear canal. People who frequently swim or have excessive earwax are at higher risk of developing this type of infection. Symptoms can include moderate-severe itchiness, pain in the outer canal, swelling, redness, and tenderness of the ear canal.
C. Labyrinthitis: Labyrinthitis is a condition that affects the inner ear, or the labyrinth. This inflammation is typically caused by a viral infection, most commonly associated with the common cold or flu. Symptoms of labyrinthitis include dizziness, vertigo, nausea, and hearing loss. In severe cases, individuals may experience difficulty with balance and coordination, making it difficult to perform daily tasks.
3. What Do Ear Infection Symptoms Look Like in Children?
The symptoms of an ear infection in children can vary depending on the type of infection that they have and the severity of the infection. Look for:
If a child is incessantly tugging or pulling down on their ears.
- If the child refuses to eat, doesn’t want to nap, or has difficulty sleeping.
- A child that is overly fussy, crying, or irritable.
- A child that has a fever, or loses their balance (dizziness).
- Children may also experience headaches.
If a child has an ear infection, they are most likely experiencing pain and discomfort with their ear(s), a fullness in their ears, and may have fluid draining from their ears at night.
4. How Are Ear Infections Diagnosed?
Here at Floto Group, we diagnose an ear infection through an ear examination using
either an otoscope, a pneumatic otoscope, or a combination of the two. An otoscope is a specialized device that allows us to see inside the ear canal and get a full view of the eardrum, while a pneumatic otoscope allows us to use air pressure to test the eardrum’s ability to move. If the eardrum cannot move or has very little movement, this is a good indication of a middle ear infection. We will also ask you questions about your symptoms, medical history, and any recent illnesses you’ve had.
5. What Treatment Looks Like for Ear Infections.
The treatment for an ear infection depends on the infection type, severity, your age, and overall health. You may receive any of the following:
A. Oral Antibiotics & Pain Relief Medication: If the cause of an ear infection is a bacterial infection, antibiotics may be prescribed by a healthcare provider to help clear the infection. The type of antibiotic prescribed will depend on the specific type of bacteria that is causing the infection. It is important to take the entire prescribed course of antibiotics, even if symptoms improve before the medication is finished, to ensure that the infection is completely cleared and to prevent the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria. In addition to antibiotics, pain relievers may also be recommended to help alleviate pain and high fevers associated with the ear infection.
B. Antibiotic Ear Drops/Acidic Solution: One of the most common treatments for an outer ear infection like swimmer’s ear is antibiotic ear drops. These drops work by killing the bacteria causing the infection and reducing inflammation in the ear canal. However, in addition to antibiotics, a healthcare provider may also recommend a mildly acidic solution to help restore the ear’s natural environment and prevent further infections. This solution can help balance the pH levels in the ear and create an environment that is less hospitable to bacteria. It’s important to follow your healthcare provider’s instructions closely and complete the full course of treatment, even if your symptoms improve before the treatment is finished.
C. Surgery for Chronic Cases: In severe or chronic cases, surgery may be necessary to treat ear infections that do not respond to medication. There are different surgical options depending on the severity and specific condition of the ear.
1. One option is a mastoidectomy, which involves the removal of the infected mastoid bone.
2. Another option is ear tube surgery, which involves the insertion of tubes to help drain fluid from the middle ear.
3. Eardrum repair is another surgical option that involves patching or reconstructing a perforated eardrum.
4. Middle ear surgery may be necessary for repairing or replacing the small bones in the middle ear.
It is important to consult with an experienced ear specialist to determine the best course of treatment for your specific condition. Surgery can be an effective option for treating severe or chronic ear infections, but it should only be considered after other treatments have been attempted and failed to provide relief.
6. Preventative Tips to Reduce Risk in Adults & Children
To reduce the risk of developing ear infections, consider the following preventive measures:
- Get your annual flu vaccine to prevent yourself from getting sick.
- Consider purchasing hand sanitizer for when you cannot wash your hands.
- Avoid close contact with those who have respiratory infections.
- Limit your exposure to first-hand and second-hand cigarette smoke.
- Dry your ears after swimming or bathing to avoid Swimmer’s Ear.
- Manage your allergies with over-the-counter medications.
Children are more susceptible to ear infections than adults due to their developing immune systems and smaller eustachian tubes. To help prevent ear infections in children:
- Encourage them to wash their hands regularly – before dinner, when they come home from school, and before they eat.
- Keep their vaccinations up to date to prevent serious illness.
- Limit their exposure to second-hand smoke.
- Monitor them during cold and allergy seasons to help them manage their nasal mucus and fluid buildup.
7. Should I Be Seeking Out Medical Attention For My Ear Infection?
If it has been more than a few days since your ear infection began, then it’s time to consider seeking out medical attention. Most ear infections resolve on their own over the course of a few days, without any additional treatment aids; however, if you’ve been experiencing symptoms for more than a week, the symptoms are worse with treatment, or you’re experiencing severe pain, fever, or a sudden loss of hearing, it is important to seek medical attention right away. Early intervention can help prevent complications and ensure a quicker recovery.