Adults Get Ear Infections, Too—Here’s What To Look for and What To Do Next

Photo: Getty Images/ The Good Brigade
Ear infections aren’t a new phenomenon, especially for kids, but new cases have been on the rise since the start of COVID-19. If you've ever had the pleasure of an earache at some point in your life, you probably know that an ear infection occurs when a virus or bacteria infects fluid and tissues in the ear, leading to (considerable) pain and swelling in the eardrum, according to The Cleveland Clinic. So, it's no surprise that like other viruses,  SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—can infect the ear tissues and cause ear infections, per the National Institute of Health (NIH). The problem is that late last year, there was a surge in pediatric ear infections, which medical experts believe may be an offshoot from the "tripledemic," when the flu, COVID-19, and respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) peaked simultaneously.

Experts In This Article

With the recent spike in ear infections doctors are seeing in kids this year, there are concerns about whether or not there are more adult ear infections, too. The answer? Unfortunately, more adults should expect to get ear infections this year as well, says Ryan Ridley, MD, an otolaryngologist at the Houston Methodist Hospital.

"If more kids are being affected with viral illnesses (such as the flu, RSV, etc.), this increases the likelihood that more adults will get sick too. These kids do not exist in a vacuum and will spread these illnesses from school into their homes to parents and other adult relatives," he says. "It is important to keep in mind that the ear infection itself is not transmissible, but the viral illness which causes the inflammation leading to the ear infections is what is contagious."

Are adult ear infections common?

Overall, adult ear infections are far less common than in children. In fact, the NIH notes that ear infections are the most common reason for pediatric hospital appointments.

"The main reason for this comes down to anatomy. The eustachian tube connects the back of the nose to the ear. This tube is directly affected by illnesses such as respiratory viruses—RSV, flu, and even COVID-19—which causes inflammation and mucus to build up in the tube, leading to an ear infection," Dr. Ridley explains.

An adult's Eustachian tube is at a vertical angle such that it is hard for mucus and drainage to get to the ear since it drains down from the ear into the back of the nose. In kids, the eustachian tube is shorter, narrower, and more horizontally oriented, which makes it difficult for the ear to drain. The result: A hotbed for fluid and infections to build up, says Dr. Ridley.

Signs you might want to see your doctor for an ear infection

"One of the main things that I always tell patients is that if you have ear pain in one or both ears that also comes with a full feeling and hearing loss, you may have an ear infection, which should be checked. Other symptoms may include fever, chills, nausea, jaw pain, ringing, itching, or irritation in and around the ear," says Dr. Ridley.

Ear infections may resolve on their own, so you may want to wait a day before seeing the doctor if your symptoms are mild, per The Mayo Clinic. However, you should contact the doctor immediately if you have severe symptoms, including chronic pain, difficulty hearing, or fluid draining from your ear.

"Also, if the symptoms are left untreated, other symptoms, such as pain and swelling of the bone behind the ear (mastoiditis) or even dizziness, may worsen in some cases," Dr. Ridley adds.

What will you need to do if you have an ear infection? 

If you suspect you have an ear infection, you will need to be seen by a medical professional. "This can be a physician, physician assistant, or nurse practitioner to determine if antibiotic treatments may be necessary," says Dr. Ridley. The medical professional will take your medical history and perform a physical examination of the ear. If your symptoms are severe or don't improve after treatment, the medical professional may refer you to an otolaryngologist, also called an ear, nose, and throat specialist.

The treatment of an ear infection is dependent on the type and severity of the infection. "If you are diagnosed with an ear infection, antibiotics may be prescribed if necessary. However, in a case where antibiotics may not be needed, a plan of conservative management, known as ‘watching, and waiting,’" can also be used, says Dr. Ridley.

He notes that if an ear infection does not clear with antibiotics and conservative management, a procedure called a myringotomy may be performed as a last resort to make a small opening in the eardrum to allow fluid trapped in the ear to drain out. The procedure is usually performed under anesthesia and lasts approximately 15 minutes. It is safe, with a considerably high success rate and few side effects.

Is it possible for adults to avoid ear infections?

If you're concerned about your ear health amid the surging ear infections, the following guidelines can help you stay healthy:

  • Wash your hands often and thoroughly with soap and water
  • Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your upper sleeve
  • Avoid smoking and secondhand smoke exposures
  • Get recommended vaccines
  • Dry your ears after swimming

"If you have an ear infection, you should not worry that the condition itself is contagious, “says Dr. Ridley. But if you also have symptoms of an upper respiratory illness, such as coughing, nasal congestion, and runny nose, you can spread the virus to others, and that “can set the stage for an ear infection," says Dr. Ridley.

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