The symptoms of ear infections in adults should be closely monitored and diagnosed by a doctor to avoid any complications.
Certain situations and actions put some people more at risk for ear infections than others. However, there are several useful steps that can be taken towards prevention and treatment. Learn more about them in this article.
Contents of this article:
Symptoms and complications
Symptoms of an ear infection may include hearing changes, dizziness, and pain.
The ear is a complicated part of the body, made up of several different chambers. Ear infections can strike in any one of these chambers and cause various symptoms.
The three main parts of the ear are known as the inner, middle, and outer ear.
Infections are most common in the middle ear and outer ear. Inner ear infections are less frequent and sometimes a sign of another underlying condition.
Symptoms of ear infections in adults vary depending on location and can include:
- inflammation and pain
- tenderness to the touch
- hearing changes
- swelling of the ear
Discharge coming from the ear is a sign of a more serious issue and should be diagnosed by a doctor immediately.
Middle ear infections
The middle ear is the area directly behind the eardrum. Middle ear infections are typically caused when bacteria or viruses from the mouth, eyes, and nasal passages get trapped behind the eardrum. The result is pain and a feeling of plugged ears.
Some people may have trouble hearing, as an inflamed eardrum is not as sensitive to sound as it needs to be. There is also a buildup of fluid or pus behind the eardrum, which can make hearing more difficult. It may feel as if the affected ear is underwater.
If the eardrum tears or bursts due to the build of pressure from the infection, fluid may drain from the ear.
A fever and general tiredness can also accompany a middle ear infection.
Outer ear infections
The outer ear extends from the ear canal on the outside of the eardrum to the outer opening of the ear itself.
Outer ear infections can start with an itchy rash on the outside of the ear. The warm, dark ear canal is the perfect place for germs to spread to, and an outer ear infection may be the result.
Outer ear infections can also result from irritation or injury to the ear canal from foreign objects, such as cotton swabs or fingernails.
Common symptoms include an ear or ear canal that is painful, swollen, and tender to the touch. The skin may become red and warm until the infection goes away.
Causes and risk factors
Ear infections may be caused by viruses or bacteria, and are more common in people with weakened immune systems.
Ear infections in adults are typically caused by germs, such as viruses, a fungus, or bacteria. The way a person becomes infected will often determine the kind of infection they get.
People with weakened immune systems or inflammation in the structures of the ear may be more prone to ear infections than others. Diabetes is another risk factor that can make someone more likely to have ear infections.
Middle ear infections
The common cold, flu, and allergies can lead to middle ear infections. Other upper respiratory problems, such as sinus or throat infections, can lead to middle ear infections, as the bacteria make their way through the connected passageways and into the eustachian tubes.
The eustachian tubes connect from the ear to the nose and throat and are responsible for controlling the pressure in the ear. Their position makes them easy targets for germs.
Infected eustachian tubes can swell and prevent proper drainage, which works toward the symptoms of middle ear infections.
People who smoke or are around smoke may also be more likely to get middle ear infections.
Outer ear infections
One common outer ear infection is known as swimmer's ear. People who spend a lot of time in water may be more at risk of developing this type of outer ear infection.
Water that sits in the ear canal after swimming or bathing creates a perfect place for germs to multiply. For this reason, untreated water may be more likely to cause an outer ear infection.
When to see a doctor
Ear infections can go away on their own in many cases, so a minor earache may not be a worry.
A doctor should typically be seen if symptoms have not improved within 3 days. If new symptoms occur, such as a fever or loss of balance, a doctor should be seen immediately.
Any sign of discharge coming from the ear would also require a visit to the doctor.
Doctors need to know a person's medical history to make a proper diagnosis. They will ask about any symptoms that have occurred, as well as any medications that a person takes.
The doctor may use an instrument called an otoscope to look at the eardrum and ear canal for signs of infection. This procedure may be accompanied by a small puff of air.
Doctors will check the way that the eardrum reacts to having air pushed against it, which can help diagnose a middle ear infection.
Depending on the cause, some infections will clear up without treatment. Symptoms may be managed during this time, and a doctor might recommend other treatments to speed up the healing process.
Antibiotics and other prescriptions
Treatment depends on the cause and severity of the infection, along with other health problems a person may have. Antibiotics are not effective against ear infections caused by viruses.
Prescription eardrops may be the way a doctor will treat some ear infections. Prescription eardrops can also sometimes be used to treat pain symptoms.
Drugs, including acetaminophen (Tylenol) and ibuprofen (Advil), help many adults with ear infections treat the pain associated with the accompanying inflammation.
Decongestants or antihistamines, such as pseudoephedrine (Sudafed) or diphenhydramine (Benadryl), may also help relieve some symptoms, especially those caused by excess mucus in the eustachian tubes.
Drugs such as these may help get rid of the pain of the ear infection, but they will not treat the infection itself.
Ear drops that may help with an ear infection can be purchased or they can be made at home.
Non-prescription eardrops may be helpful in treating mild cases of swimmer's ear. Eardrops can be made at home or purchased over the counter.
According to ear specialists, a simple at-home blend can be made by making a mixture of half rubbing alcohol and half white vinegar. Using a few drops into the ears can help dry out the ear canal and support the healing process.
These drops should also not be used in people who have ear tubes (T-tubes), permanent injuries to their eardrum, or certain ear surgeries.
If the infection is not getting better or other symptoms develop, a person should stop using the drops and see their doctor.
Eardrops should not be used in an ear that has any discharge coming from it unless prescribed by a doctor.
Ear discharge, drainage, or blood is a sign of a bigger complication, such as a ruptured eardrum, which needs immediate medical attention.
A warm compress may help relieve the pressure building up in the ear as well. Using a compress for 20-minute periods while resting can help reduce pain. This can be done along with other pain treatments, including over-the-counter medications.
Some simple everyday steps help prevent many ear infections. Some basic hygiene tips and lifestyle choices will also support prevention.
Quitting smoking is an important step in preventing upper respiratory and ear infections. Smoking directly damages the delicate tissues in this part of the body, as well as decreasing the effectiveness of the body's immune system. It also generates inflammation.
The outer ear should be properly cleaned and dried after swimming or bathing. Experts recommend using earplugs to avoid getting water in the ears in the first place. Towel blotting and towel drying the ears and hair immediately after swimming can also help.
A person should not use cotton swabs or other objects to clean out the ears, as these can injure the ear canal and eardrum, leading to an infection.
Regular hand-washing can help prevent the spread of the germs that may cause ear infections. Anyone trying to prevent ear infections should also avoid putting their fingers in or near their ears.
People with allergies should avoid their allergy triggers as much as possible to reduce the inflammation and mucus buildup that could contribute to an infection.
Treating both seasonal allergies and skin conditions are further necessary steps in preventing ear infections.
Ear infections in adults can lead to serious consequences, including hearing loss if left unchecked. An untreated infection may also spread to other parts of the body.
Any suspected ear infection should be diagnosed by a doctor. People with a history of recurrent ear infections should be seen by an ear specialist.
A doctor's guidance can help someone relieve their symptoms and treat the infection, as well as take steps to prevent the infection reoccurring.