Some medical incidents are inextricably linked to the childhood experience: Kids throw up a lot for some reason, they skin their knees, they have their tonsils removed, and they get ear infections. Of course, these things can happen to grown-ups, too, but it’s much less common. Still, because some maladies are so closely associated with kids, it can take some time before an adult recognizes the symptoms their body is displaying. Ear infections are a great example of this.
You can get an ear infection in your grown years, but if you’re stuck thinking that only happens to children, you might put off getting checked out. Let’s avoid that possibility by discovering the symptoms and causes of ear infections in adults.
Can adults can get ear infections?
They sure can. I texted a friend about writing this article and she told me she had one right now, but took weeks to get seen by a doctor because she figured there’s no way that could happen to someone in their 30s. The problem didn’t go away because she misidentified what it could have been and declined to seek treatment; it got worse in that time.
As the docs at Woodstock Family Practice & Urgent Care in Georgia explain on their website, kids do get ear infections more easily than adults because their eustachian tubes are small, short, and parallel to the ground while they’re developing, so they don’t drain super well. Mucus builds up, maybe because of a cold or allergies, and bacteria “set up shop and infect the tissues.”
Your eustachian tubes are more fully developed than they once were (congrats!) but that does not make you immune.
What are the kinds and symptoms of an ear infection in adults?
These are the types of ear infections you can get:
- Inner ear infection
- Middle ear infection
- Outer ear infection
Each of these has its own set of symptoms. With an inner ear infection, for instance, you may experience dizziness, nausea, vomiting, vertigo, or hearing loss, according to Healthline. Issues in the inner ear may also be a sign of something more serious, like meningitis, so get checked out if you have those symptoms.
As for middle ear infections, watch out for a fever or trouble hearing. Fluid could drain from your ears if the infection progresses to a tympanic membrane rupture, which can cause a sudden loss of hearing. Per Healthline, this does tend to heal on its own. These can be caused by colds or respiratory issues.
Outer ear infections can be signaled by an itchy rash on the outer part of your ear. Your ear could be painful, tender, red, or swollen. You may also hear these referred to as “swimmer’s ear” because outer ear infections often start when water remains in the ear after swimming or bathing. Bacteria comes next. Bacterial infections can also start when your outer ear is scratched or irritated.
It’s important to stay on top of these symptoms to avoid permanent hearing loss or for the infection to spread to other parts of your head. Prompt treatment can usually nip the infection in the bud, so don’t worry too much—just get to a doctor.
What factors influence whether you’ll get an ear infection?
The size and slope of your eustachian tubes play a role here, but you’re forgiven if you’re not intimately familiar with those traits. Some influencing factors you can be aware of, though, include smoking or being around secondhand smoke, having allergies (either seasonal or year-round), or developing a cold or upper respiratory infection.
So, if you have any of the symptoms above and are a smoker, a person with allergies, or getting over a cold, consider that you might have an ear infection.
To prevent ear infections, dry your ears thoroughly whenever you get them wet, consider quitting smoking, and always manage cold or allergy symptoms as best as you can.
How are ear infections in adults treated?
Ear infections can resolve themselves on their own in a few days, per Healthline, but if an earache persists beyond a few days, go see a doctor—especially if you develop a fever. Fluid oozing from your ear or a loss of hearing also serve as signs you should seek medical attention sooner than later.
Once you get to the doctor, it’ll be a lot like what you remember from childhood: The doc peeks in your ear with an otoscope, maybe even using a pneumatic one to puff a little air in there to see how your eardrum reacts. Expect that you could have a hearing test, too.
With an inner infection, you’ll likely be prescribed some antibiotics, though there are no guarantees you’ll get that delicious pink liquid medicine you used to get back in the day. Sorry, growing up kind of sucks.
Middle ear infections will also probably net you antibiotics, though they can also be applied with ear drops instead of just orally. The doctor may also want you to pick up some over-the-counter pain meds or anti-inflammatories, or maybe decongestant or antihistamine if you’re still dealing with cold or allergy symptoms.
If you have an outer ear infection and your doctor determines it’s bacterial, guess what? Antibiotics again. You should also carefully clean the outer ear and apply antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory medicines. If the infection is fungal, expect a prescription antifungal medication.