What Did You Say? Ear Infections in Adults

Katherine Cork's picture
By Katherine Cork on May 30, 2019

Your hearing is muffled, there’s pain in your ear—you just might have an ear infection.

When you think of an ear infection, you probably think about children, who are much more prone to them. But people of any age can develop one.

An infection can be in the inner, middle or outer ear:

  • Inner ear infections may also come with feelings of dizziness, nausea and vomiting and can be a symptom of another medical issue.
  • Middle ear infections (otitis media) are the most common and are caused by fluid that is trapped behind the eardrum, causing an earache and sometimes drainage.
  • Infections in the outer ear can start as a rash and your ear may be tender, red or swollen.

If you think you may have an ear infection, this information from Christy Arthur, M.D., of Carilion Clinic Family Medicine will help you know what to do. 

How Do I Know I Have an Ear Infection?
Your primary care physician or urgent care provider can look into your ear with a lighted, magnifying instrument and see if there is inflammation or fluid buildup. That’s the telltale sign of an ear infection.

How Did I Get It?
What started as a cold, a sore throat or even a sinus infection can become an inner ear infection as the infection moves to your Eustachian tubes through the back of your nose and throat. Outer ear infections can be a result of water that stays in your ear after you’ve been swimming or if something has scratched the outer part of your ear.

Is It Contagious?
An ear infection is not contagious, but if it was caused by a cold, that could be contagious.

What Will Help the Pain?
Believe it or not, in many cases an ear infection will clear up on its own in a few days; antibiotics may not be necessary unless the pain goes on for many days without getting better or if you’re running a fever.

woman looking pained while trying to rest on white sheets and pillow
Sleeping with your infected ear up can help keep more pressure from building up overnight.

You can relieve the pain and pressure with over-the-counter pain relievers. Putting a warm compress on the ear can also help.

Will My Hearing Come Back?
In most cases, yes. But there can be complications with your infection that result in permanent hearing loss.

How Do I Avoid Getting Another One?
There’s no one way to avoid an ear infection. To protect your ears, the best things you can do are the things that will help you avoid a cold or infection in the first place:

  • Eat well
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Exercise regularly
  • Don’t smoke
  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Maintain your overall health

Also be sure to treat your allergies so they don't lead to an ear infection. Because children often get recurring ear infections, it's worth noting that the Prevnar vaccine for children has been shown to greatly reduce the incidence of otitis media. 

If you think you may have an ear infection, visit your primary care physician or an urgent care location.