An ear infection is an infection of the middle ear, the air-filled space behind the eardrum. Children are most likely to develop ear infections, but adults can get them too.
Ear infections are commonly associated with colds or the flu because the middle ear is connected to the upper respiratory tract by a tiny channel known as the Eustachian tube. Germs that are growing in the nose or sinus cavities can climb up the Eustachian tube and enter the middle ear to start growing.
The most common symptoms associated with ear infections in children include:
- Ear pain, especially when lying down
- Tugging or pulling at an ear
- Trouble sleeping
- Crying more than usual
- Trouble hearing or responding to sounds
- Loss of balance
- Fever of 100 F (38 C) or higher
- Drainage of fluid from the ear
Ear pain, difficulty hearing and drainage of fluid from the ear are the most common symptoms in adults.
While anyone can develop an ear infection, there are multiple factors that can increase your chances of developing one, including:
- Age – Children between the ages of 6 months and 2 years are more susceptible to ear infections because of the size and shape of their Eustachian tubes and because their immune systems are still developing.
- Group child care – Children cared for in group settings are more likely to get colds and ear infections than are children who stay home.
- Bottle feeding – Babies who drink from a bottle, especially while lying down, tend to have more ear infections than do babies who are breast-fed.
- Seasonal factors. Ear infections are most common during the fall and winter. People with seasonal allergies may have a greater risk of ear infections when pollen counts are high.
- Poor air quality. Exposure to tobacco smoke or high levels of air pollution can increase the risk of ear infections.
Because ear infections often clear up on their own, treatment may begin with managing pain and monitoring symptoms. When they don’t however, antibiotics can be used to clear the infection. Some people are prone to having multiple ear infections. This can cause hearing problems and other serious complications.
It is important to see your doctor when:
- The patient is less than six months old
- Symptoms last more than a day
- Pain is severe
- There is a discharge of fluid
Most ear infections don’t cause long-term complications, but if someone develops them repeatedly, they can lead to complications including impaired hearing, speech or development delays and spread of infection to nearby tissue.
The best ways to reduce the risk of developing an ear infection include practicing good hand hygiene and social distancing to avoid contracting the common cold, the flu or other viruses and bacterial infections that can lead to them. Other tips include breast-feeding your baby and avoiding secondhand smoke.
All content of this newsletter is intended for general information purposes only and is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please consult a medical professional before adopting any of the suggestions on this page. You must never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking medical treatment based upon any content of this newsletter. PROMPTLY CONSULT YOUR PHYSICIAN OR CALL 911 IF YOU BELIEVE YOU HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY.