What Should You Do in Case of an Ear Infection? Is It Contagious?

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Jane Taylor in Health & Wealth

Last updated: 21 January 2020, 06:14 GMT

Easily recognized by ear pain and inflammation, a common ear infection can be an unwelcome addition to cold and flu seasons. No one is immune to these infections, though the effects and types vary with different age groups.

This article discusses the symptoms, treatment, and diagnosis of an ear infection and what you can do to prevent them in the future.

What Is an Ear Infection?

Ear infections can be caused by viruses, bacteria, or fungi. There are actually three types: inner, middle, and outer. Although none of these infections are contagious, each type has its own set of painful symptoms and triggers.

Middle Ear Infection

Also known as acute otitis media, this infection is usually triggered by the common cold or respiratory illness. During this time, the ear may become filled with fluid, trapping the bacteria or virus the patient already suffers from. This new infection causes inflammation in the ear. Otitis media is most common in small children who have underdeveloped immune systems and narrowed eustachian tubes.

Ear infections are not contagious. However, the initial illness causing this infection might be. When you visit your doctor, be sure to discuss your recent illnesses to determine whether or not you are still contagious.

This infection is categorized by pain when the ear is pulled, a general “plugged up” feeling, and thick discharge oozing from the ear canal. Children may display clumsiness, trouble sleeping, fussiness, and loss of hearing.

Outer Ear Infection

Otitis externa, or swimmer’s ear, is less common. True to its name, swimmer’s ear often plagues any age group regularly performing underwater activities. Otitis externa is also caused by excessive fluid in the ear, where bacteria (Pseudomonas or MRSA) may breed. Swimmer’s ear can also be caused by small scratches in the ear canal’s lining, due to improper cleaning tools, such as cotton swabs.

Symptoms are very similar to the middle ear, including pain and oozing discharge. Swimmer’s ear signs also include exterior inflammation, pain when pressure is applied to the ear, itching, and, in severe cases, fever.

Inner Ear Infection

Labyrinthitis generally affects adults. Labyrinthitis can come swiftly on the heels of otitis media. The resulting inflammation disrupts the processes of the internal nerves connecting to the brain. This causes additional symptoms, such as vertigo, nausea, and tinnitus (ringing of the ears).

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Diagnosing an Ear Infection

What Will Your Doctor Ask?

Your doctor will ask you questions to assess the kind of infection you have. He may ask about your symptoms, recent illnesses, sports activities, ear cleaning habits, and previous ear infections.

Diagnosing ear infection in children, especially those not old enough to communicate clearly, can be difficult. Your doctor may ask if your child fusses with their ears, how he or she is sleeping, or if they have put any foreign objects into their ear canal.

What Will Your Doctor Look For?

Many ear infections can be diagnosed by a visual inspection. An infected ear is generally red and inflamed, even on the exterior. In addition, otitis media and external may display oozing discharge.

In some cases, otitis media and labyrinthitis requires additional tools. The doctor may use a pneumatic otoscope to check for fluid in the ear. If the diagnosis is still unclear, the doctor will check the ear’s air pressure with a tympanometer.

What Is Your Doctor Thinking?

All of these questions and tools will tell your doctor which type of infection to treat. By asking about your recent illnesses, your doctor can hypothesize whether the infection is viral or bacterial. Discussing your specific symptoms can also tell the doctor which part of the ear the infection is based in.

What Is the Treatment for Ear Infection?

Most cases of inner ear infection treatment and external ear infection are treated with antibiotics, such as amoxicillin. This can either be administered orally or through a swimmer's ear drops. If the infection is severe enough, he may prescribe corticosteroids to ease the swelling. After treatment, your doctor will assess the infection. If it still hasn’t dissipated, it may be necessary to clean your ear canal or drain the fluid manually.

Since most cases of labyrinthitis are viral, waiting it out is usually the only option. The doctor can treat associated symptoms, such as antihistamines or corticosteroids for inflammation or meclozine for nausea.

If your doctor is unsure if your infection is bacterial, he may not recommend prescribed treatment. Studies have found that over-treating patients with antibiotics can cause more resilient bacteria. If you are instructed to wait, try using an over-the-counter pain reliever or Benadryl to assist with the inflammation.

The best treatment is prevention. Avoid bacterial and viral infections altogether by taking vitamins, washing your hands, and getting your seasonal shots. Avoid otitis externa by wearing earplugs when swimming and practicing proper ear cleaning techniques. Acetic acid   2% is effective prophylaxis for swimmer's ear.

How Long Will You Have an Ear Infection?

Mild symptoms typically clear up in a few days. However, your doctor will recommend that you maintain treatment for seven to ten days. Swimmer’s ear infection treatment includes staying away from the water for ten days, or until the doctor instructs otherwise.

Inner infections usually resolve in a week or two. If symptoms don’t go away in a few months, you might need to do some additional testing to diagnose Meniere’s disease.

Let's Recap

Whether you or your child suffer from this condition, ear infections are no fun. Common colds can cause secondary infections such as otitis media and labyrinthitis. On the other hand, improper care or excess water inside the ear canal can cause outer ear infections. In the future, practice preventative care to ensure that an ear infection doesn’t add to the cold season misery.

While ear infections are usually only painful inconveniences, sometimes they are indicative of underlying conditions. If you notice symptoms of an ear infection, see your doctor if only to eliminate the worst scenarios.

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