There are many signs that you have an ear infection—pressure deep inside your ear, a dull ache and popping noises, itchiness or inflammation, and so on. This condition can be painful, and happen more often than you’d imagine. This leads many to the question: is an ear infection contagious?
The simple answer? Ear infections are not contagious!
If you want to know more, keep reading to learn about ear infections in children compared to adults and how viruses or bacteria are the real culprits of spreading disease.
What is an Ear Infection?
Put simply, an ear infection is a viral or bacterial infection occurring behind the eardrum. The pain comes from the infection causing pressure on the eardrum, and this in turn results in pain from inflammation and fluid build-up.
There are different types of ear infections: middle ear infection (otitis media), external ear infection (otitis externa), and inner ear inflammation (labyrinthitis).
Otitis Media involves the middle ear, an air-filled space behind the eardrum and where small bones vibrate to convert sound. When you have a viral upper respiratory infection—also known as the common cold and flu— bacteria that contains mucus collects in the middle ear, causing a middle ear infection. Young children are most susceptible to getting this infection since they have more social contact and still developing immune systems.
External ear infections, also commonly known as swimmer’s ear, occur when moisture and bacteria from any fluid in the ear causes infection and painful swelling. Pus may also be produced in the ear canal.
Labyrinthitis is the inflammation of the inner ear, also called the labyrinth. These types of ear infections are also caused by the cold and flu virus.
Regarding the question – is ear infection contagious – the first thing to learn with ear pain are the various symptoms. Common symptoms of ear infections include pain, inflammation, fluid buildup, reduced hearing, and itching.
About 75% of children before age three will get at least one ear infection, meaning they’re the most common reason for pediatric doctor visits.
Ear infections in children, and some adults, include other symptoms like:
Tugging or Pulling at the Ear
Pain (Especially when Lying Down)
Loss of Balance
Lack of Appetite
How Do You Catch an Ear Infection?
As we said in the beginning, ear infections are not contagious, but the cause behind your ear infection may be. The common cold and flu virus can be spread person to person easily and quickly, unless steps are taken to limit the spread of germs.
Ear infections develop when mucus backs up and gets trapped in the middle ear or eustachian tubes, the small passageway that connects your throat to your middle ear. This means you can develop an ear infection if you have allergies and experience poor sinus drainage, which leaves the door open for a bacterial infection to occur.
Infants and younger children are more vulnerable to clogged tubes because anatomically their tubes are more horizontal, narrower, less rigid, and shorter. Viruses and bacteria can move up more easily through these eustachian tubes increasing the chance of an ear infection.
To prevent getting an ear infection, you should start by getting an annual preventative flu shot. You should also regularly wash your hands thoroughly to prevent spreading germs, and avoid touching your face after touching public surfaces; and, of course, The COVID-19 pandemic taught us the importance of carrying an effective hand sanitizer.
At home, you should regularly wash your children’s toys in hot, soapy water, especially before and after play dates. Disinfecting surfaces you and your family frequently come into contact with is also an effective way to stay healthy.
How Long Do Ear Infections Last?
You typically don’t need to be medically reviewed for ear infections, since they will typically resolve themselves on their own in about three days.
However, if you experience ear infection symptoms for six weeks or more, you could have a chronic ear infection. This condition is when any infections, swelling, and fluids in the ear do not go away or keep coming back; these types of infection have the potential to cause long-term or permanent damage to the ear. If you or your child experience acute ear infections or suppurative chronic otitis, you should seek medical advice, diagnosis or treatment.
Your primary care provider will diagnose your ear infection after examining it through an otoscope. They should prescribe antibiotics, which may be given orally or intravenously, if the infection was caused by bacteria. Antibiotic ear drops, and potentially a mildly acidic solution, will be needed if there is a hole in the eardrum.
For more severe cases, treatment options involve a surgeon coming in to perform a mastoidectomy, ear tube surgery, repairing the eardrum,or surgery to repair or replace the small bones in the middle ear; which one is performed will depend on your condition.
Should I Stay Home With an Ear Infection?
If you have a mild case of otitis media and aren’t showing other cold and flu symptoms, you can still go out and about. However, since they do cause pain and sometimes complicate hearing, it may be best to wait things out at home.
Village EC Can Help
Living with pain caused by ear infections is no fun. Instead of dealing with symptoms, visit your nearest emergency room or urgent care to get help. Whether you or your children are experiencing painful ear infections, assistance is right around the corner.