Everything you never thought you should know about ear infections in adults

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Some medical incidents are inextricably linked to the childhood experience: Children vomit a lot for some reason they scrape their knees, they have their tonsils removed and get ear infections. Of course, these things can also happen to adults, but it’s much less common. Yet, because some illnesses are so closely associated with children, it can take a while for an adult to recognize the symptoms their body is displaying. Ear infections are a good example.

You can get an ear infection as an adult, but if you’re stuck thinking it only happens to kids, you might delay the exam. Let’s avoid this possibility by finding out the symptoms and causes of ear infections in adults.

Can adults get ear infections?

They certainly can. I texted a friend to write this article and she said she had one right now, but took weeks to get checked out by a doctor because she thought it couldn’t happen to someone in their 30s. The problem didn’t go away because she misidentified what it might have been and refused to seek treatment; it got worse around that time.

As the doctors at Woodstock Family Practice & Urgent Care in Georgia explain on their website, children have more ear infections easily than adults because their eustachian tubes are small, short, and parallel to the ground as they grow, so they don’t drain very well. Mucus builds up, perhaps from a cold or allergies, and bacteria “take hold and infect the tissues.”

Your Eustachian tubes are more developed than they once were (congratulations!), but that doesn’t make you immune.

What are the types and symptoms of an ear infection in adults?

Here are the types of ear infections you can get:

  • Inner ear infection
  • middle ear infection
  • Outer ear infection

Each of them has its own set of symptoms. With an inner ear infection, for example, you may experience dizziness, nausea, vomiting, vertigo or hearing loss, according to Healthline. Inner ear problems can also be a sign of something more serious, like meningitis, so get checked out if you have these symptoms.

For middle ear infections, watch out for fever or impaired hearing. Fluid may leak from your ears if the infection progresses to a ruptured tympanic membrane, which can lead to sudden hearing loss. According to Healthline, this tends to heal on its own. These can be caused by colds or breathing problems.

Outer ear infections can be signaled by an itchy rash on the outer part of your ear. Your ear may be sore, tender, red or swollen. You may also hear them referred to as “swimmer’s ear” because outer ear infections often start when there is water left in the ear after swimming or bathing. Bacteria come next. Bacterial infections can also start when your outer ear is scratched or irritated.

It’s important to watch for these symptoms to avoid permanent hearing loss or the infection spreading to other parts of your head. Prompt treatment can usually nip the infection in the bud, so don’t worry too much, just see a doctor.

What factors influence whether you will 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 these traits. Some influencing factors that you can being aware, however, of things like smoking or being around second-hand smoke, having allergies (seasonal or year-round), or developing a cold or upper respiratory infection.

So, if you have any of the above symptoms and are a smoker, allergy sufferer, or recovering from a cold, consider that you might have an ear infection.

To prevent ear infections, dry your ears thoroughly each time you get them wet, consider quitting smoking, and always manage cold or allergy symptoms as best you can.

How are ear infections in adults treated?

Ear infections can resolve on their own within a few days, by Healthline, but if an earache persists for more than a few days, seek medical attention, especially if you have a fever. Fluid oozing from your ear or hearing loss are also signs that you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

Once at the doctor, it will be much like what you remember from childhood: the doctor looks into your ear with an otoscope, perhaps even using a pneumatic to blow some air to see how your eardrum reacts . Expect that you can also take a hearing test.

With an internal infection, you’ll likely be prescribed antibiotics, although there’s no guarantee you’ll get that delicious pink liquid medicine you used to pick up back in the day. Sorry, growing up kinda sucks.

Middle ear infections will probably also give you antibiotics, although these can also be applied with ear drops instead of just by mouth. The doctor may also ask you to take over-the-counter pain relievers or anti-inflammatories, or perhaps a decongestant or antihistamine if you still have cold or allergy symptoms.

If you have an outer ear infection and your doctor determines it is bacteria, guess what? More antibiotics. You should also thoroughly clean the outer ear and apply antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory drugs. If the infection is fungal, expect prescription antifungal medication.

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