Ear infections (otitis media) are the most common diagnosis for children who visit their doctor for an illness; however, they occur less frequently in adults.

Still, adult ear infections do happen, and if you do experience one, symptoms like pain and hearing loss can be debilitating, affecting your job, relationships with others and your overall quality of life. This is especially true if you have recurring, or chronic, ear infections, which can have lasting effects on your ability to hear.

The ear, nose and throat (ENT) specialists at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus, Ohio, are uniquely trained to handle chronic ear infections to ensure you don’t develop long-term issues from them. Our Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery is ranked as one of the best ENT programs in the country by U.S. News & World Report, and many doctors in central Ohio and the region refer their patients to us for help with persistent ear issues, like otitis media.

What is otitis media?

Otitis media is the medical term for an ear infection that occurs in the middle ear, right behind the eardrum. Bacteria or viruses from the nose and throat can become trapped there, causing an infection marked by inflammation and fluid buildup in the area. Otitis media is different than otitis externa (swimmer’s ear), which is an infection that occurs in the outer ear canal.

Though middle ear infections are most common in young children, teenagers and adults can still get them. They also happen more frequently in the winter, and those with seasonal allergies might be at increased risk of developing ear infections.

This condition can be acute (coming on quickly and happening only once or twice) or chronic (recurring or doesn’t heal the first time around). You should talk to your doctor if your ear infection keeps returning to ensure your ear and hearing remain undamaged.

What causes ear infections in adults?

Middle ear infections are caused by a bacteria or virus and are often the result of another infection, such as a cold, the flu or allergies. For example, a cold can cause the eustachian tube, which connects your ear to your throat, to become inflamed. This allows fluid to build inside your ear, making it the ideal spot for germs to grow.

Swelling of the adenoids (pads of tissue at the back of the nose) can also block the eustachian tubes, trapping fluid and leading to an ear infection. Children’s adenoids are larger and the tubes narrower, allowing ear infections to affect them more frequently than adults.

Are ear infections contagious?

No, ear infections aren’t contagious; however, you can catch the cold or flu virus that led someone to have an ear infection.

Ear infection symptoms

Symptoms of otitis media are slightly different for children versus adults, with ear pain being the number one sign of the condition.

Ear infection symptoms commonly experienced by adults include:

  • An earache, with pain that can be mild or severe
  • Ear pressure
  • Drainage from the ear
  • Hearing loss
  • Tinnitus (ringing)

Young children with ear infections might also experience these symptoms:

  • Tugging or pulling at ears
  • Fussiness
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Fever of 100 degrees or more
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea, vomiting

These symptoms can come and go or last a long time. Sometimes, symptoms can be difficult to detect, which can delay treatment.

Can you treat an ear infection at home?

Most of the time, you can manage symptoms of an ear infection at home, using over-the-counter medications and other tools. It’s important to remember, though, that if your infection is caused by bacteria, you’ll need to be prescribed antibiotics by a doctor.

Ways you can treat an ear infection at home include:

  • Use over-the-counter pain relievers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, to ease discomfort
  • Use warm compresses
  • Rest and drink plenty of fluids

If symptoms persist for longer than a few days or they recur frequently, making the condition chronic, you’ll want to consult an ENT specialist to see what further treatments we can offer. This will also involve treating related conditions that might be causing your chronic ear infections.

Ear infection treatment at Ohio State

Our ENT doctors and neurotologists specialize in diagnosing and managing hard-to-treat ear conditions, like chronic ear infections. We have various methods we can use to clear up the infection and relieve your symptoms.

Treatment measures include:

  • Antibiotics, if the infection is caused by bacteria
  • Tube placement surgery to promote fluid drainage and prevent buildup, mainly done in children
  • A mastoidectomy to remove infected cells and tissue gathered inside the ear
  • A tympanoplasty to repair damage to the eardrum
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