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Ear Infections: Commonly Asked Questions

You can probably remember the sharp pain of an ear infection when you were young. Or, perhaps you’ve recently had some sleepless nights as your own child cried their way through an ear infection. However, ear infections aren’t just for kids – about 20% of ear infections occur in adults.

While ear infections can happen to anyone and are common year-round, cases tend to increase in winter due to the rise of illnesses that come with cooler weather – like flu, strep throat, and the common cold.

With that said, check out our answers to common ear infection questions and learn everything you need to know, so you can get an “ear”ly start preventing them!

How do ear infections happen?

Ear infections start when fluid that contains viruses or bacteria gets trapped in your ear. Over time, these trapped germs can develop into an ear infection.

Anyone can get an ear infection, although children get them more often than adults. This is because the tubes that connect the ears to the throat (Eustachian tubes) are smaller and more horizontal in young children, making it harder for fluid to drain away.

There are three main types of ear infections:

Outer ear infection (otitis externa)

An outer ear infection – often referred to as swimmer’s ear – is typically caused by water that stays in the outer ear canal, providing a moist environment for bacteria to grow. This is the most common type of ear infection for adults, although many kids get them as well (especially after frequent swimming or bathing). Children and adults who frequently insert cotton swabs into their ear canals are also more likely to get outer ear infections.

Middle ear infection (otitis media)

A middle ear infection is when fluid builds up in your middle ear, the air-filled space behind the eardrum that contains the tiny vibrating bones of the ear. When your Eustachian tubes are working properly, they drain fluid away from your middle ear. But if the tubes are swollen because you’re sick (with a cold, flu, strep throat, etc.), the fluid can no longer drain. Instead, it collects behind the eardrum, making it easier for bacteria to grow.

Inner ear infection (otitis labyrinthitis)

Your inner ear is the part of your ear that’s responsible for balance, hearing, and other critical functions. Thankfully, inner ear infections are rare. They happen when your inner ear is inflamed or irritated – again, usually because of a cold, flu, allergies, and the like. An infection in your middle ear can also eventually spread to your inner ear.

Are ear infections contagious?

The viruses and bacteria that cause ear infections can be spread from one person to another, but you can’t give someone else your ear infection.

What are the symptoms of an ear infection?

The universal symptom of an ear infection is ear pain. For children who are too young to speak, you may notice them rubbing or tugging their ears, crying more than usual, eating less, and having trouble sleeping.

All ear infections can also cause muffled hearing or hearing loss. Other symptoms will depend on the type of ear infection you have.

Outer ear infection symptoms include:

  • Tenderness of the ear structures surrounding the opening of the ear canal
  • Redness on the outer ear or in your ear canal
  • Itchiness
  • Swelling
  • Fluid draining from your ear (it may be clear and odorless or yellowish-green and smelly, depending on the severity of the infection)

Middle ear infection symptoms include:

  • Fever from 100° F to 104° F
  • Warm fluid draining from your ear (it may be white, yellow, or brown), which indicates that the ear drum has ruptured
  • Increased ear pressure when swallowing or lying down

Inner ear infection symptoms include:

  • Dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Balance issues

What are the causes of ear infections in kids?

Again, being submerged in water is the most common cause of outer ear infections in children (and adults). The increased use of earbuds and earphones is also a risk factor for outer ear infections.

Many illnesses and health conditions (such as colds, sinus infections, allergies, or even acid reflux) can cause a child’s Eustachian tubes to swell and become unable to drain fluid, making the child more susceptible to ear infections.

Mayo Clinic also confirms that secondhand smoke, bottle-feeding, pacifier use, childcare facilities, and seasonal factors (winter, we’re talking about you!) all put kids at higher risk for ear infections.

What are the causes of ear infections in adults?

The same cold-weather illnesses and health conditions that cause ear infections in children can cause them in adults as well. Adults with weakened immune systems and certain medical conditions (such as diabetes, eczema, or psoriasis) may also get more frequent ear infections.

What causes repeated ear infections?

There are multiple causes for repeated ear infections, ranging from bacterial infections to ear injuries to allergies. If you have three or more ear infections in a six-month period, talk to your doctor or vybe provider about treatment options, which might include ear tube surgery.

How do you prevent ear infections?

The best way to prevent ear infections is to limit the factors that put you and your family at risk:

  • Wash hands frequently, especially during cold and flu season
  • Keep sick children away from each other
  • Control your allergy symptoms
  • Dry your ears after swimming
  • Get a seasonal flu shot each year
  • Avoid exposure to secondhand smoke
  • Don’t put your child to bed with a bottle

When should you see a doctor for an ear infection?

You don’t want to ignore an ear infection. Left untreated, an ear infection can lead to permanent hearing loss. Children with chronic ear infections can also lag in developmental milestones, such as walking and talking.

Visit an urgent care center right away if:

  • Your baby is less than three months old and has a fever (above 102° F for older children)
  • Your ear pain is severe
  • Fluid is draining from your ear
  • You experience changes in your hearing
  • The infection does not respond to treatment after a few days

How does urgent care treat ear infections?

A provider will carefully examine your ear to determine what type of infection you have before proceeding with treatment. Mild ear infections sometimes clear up on their own and antibiotics may not be necessary. However, severe ear infections could require an antibiotic prescription and additional treatment.

If you have repeated ear infections, you may be a candidate for ear tube surgery. If so, your vybe provider can give you a specialist referral.

Visit vybe today

Have more questions about ear infections? At vybe, we’re all ears! We accept walk-ins for all urgent care services, including ear infection treatment, flu shots, and more to prepare you for the winter months ahead.

With 10+ urgent care centers throughout Greater Philadelphia, vybe is your go-to destination for great healthcare. Find a location and visit us today!