Ear infections are common in kids, but it can be jarring when you suddenly develop one as an adult. After all, they can be really uncomfortable, and it’s probably been a minute since you’ve had one.
But while ear infections are lumped into one group, there are actually different areas of your ear that can get infected and even a variety of causes that could be behind your earache. If you happen to develop an ear infection, don’t panic—there are a few things you can do to get relief.
First, what is an ear infection?
At a very basic level, an ear infection is an infection in some part of your ear. A middle ear infection is an infection of your middle ear (the air-filled space behind your eardrum), while an infection of your outer ear canal is usually called swimmer’s ear.
What causes ear infections?
It depends. An ear infection can be caused by bacteria or a virus. If you have a bacterial ear infection, it’s likely caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae or Haemophilus influenzae. If your ear infection is viral, it can be caused by the viruses that cause the common cold or flu. Meaning, you could develop an ear infection along with your cold or flu symptoms.
There’s also some research to suggest that SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, can infect the ear as well, but it’s not well studied at the moment.
Keep in mind that it can be tough to figure out upfront what kind of ear infection you have. “We often do not know if an infection is due to a bacteria or virus unless specific cultures are taken,” says Dr Elliott Kozin, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor).
What are the symptoms of an ear infection?
Ear infections usually aren’t comfortable, and Dr Kozin says they can cause a range of symptoms. Those include:
- Ear pain
- Ear drainage
- Hearing loss
- Feeling like your ear is full or underwater
- Ringing in your ear
How are ear infections diagnosed?
Your doctor will usually want to inspect your ears to make a proper diagnosis. That includes using a tool called a pneumatic otoscope, which allows your doctor to look at your ear and see if there’s fluid behind your eardrum. When your doctor uses this, they gently puff air against your eardrum. If your ear is healthy, it should move; if it’s filled with fluid, your doctor will see little to no movement.
How can you treat an ear infection at home?
There are a few things you can try to get relief from your pain:
- Use OTC pain medication. Paracetamol can help with the pain, Dr Kozin says.
- Get rest. Rest allows your body’s immune system energy to do its job and try to help you heal, says Dr Arashdeep Litt, an internal medicine specialist.
- Drink plenty of liquids. “Drinking a lot of water can help thin the secretions in your ear rather than keeping them thick,” says Dr Omid Mehdizadeh, an otolaryngologist and laryngologist. “That will help drain mucus in your ear.”
- Lie down with the affected ear up. This can help any excess fluid that’s behind your eardrum drain through your Eustachian tubes and down your throat, Dr Mehdizadeh says.
- Use a warm compress. While this won’t necessarily help with drainage, it may lessen your pain, Dr Mehdizadeh says.
It can be tempting to use a cotton swab to see if that will help you get relief, but Dr Kozin recommends against doing this. “One should never put anything in the ear if concerned for an ear infection, such as a cotton tip, as manipulation of the ear can make the infection worse,” he warns.
When should you see a doctor for an ear infection?
You don’t want to sit with ear pain for long. If you’ve tried at-home remedies, you’re not getting relief, or your symptoms have gotten worse, Dr Kozin says it’s time to talk to your doctor immediately. You’ll also definitely want to see someone if you have drainage from your ear, hearing loss, ringing in your ears, or dizziness, he says.
What other treatment options are available?
Depending on your symptoms and how severe your ear pain is, your doctor may recommend a wait and see approach. Your body’s immune system can usually fight off middle ear infections on its own, and you may not need to take anything. It also depends on the cause of your infection, Dr Litt says. “Viruses don’t get better with antibiotics,” she points out.
But, if you have a more severe ear infection or your pain has lasted longer than two to three days, your doctor may recommend that you are treated with antibiotics to get relief. “Ear infections are typically treated by antibiotics based on the location,” Dr Kozin says. “If the infection is located in the outer part of the ear—the ear canal—topical antibiotics drops may be used. If the ear infection is behind the eardrum, oral antibiotics are generally used.”