Ear infections

An ear infection is often the result of a bacterial or viral infection that typically affects the middle ear. The most common symptom associated with an ear infection is ear pain.

Though it’s possible for adults to develop an ear infection, they’re more common among children. Ear infections often clear up on their own. They may require medical treatment in more severe cases.

Ear infections sometimes develop during or following a cold or contagious infection. For this reason, some people question whether or not ear infections can be contagious. Read on to learn common causes of ear infections and ways to prevent them.

Are ear infections contagious?

Ear infections aren’t contagious. However, bacterial and viral infections that trigger ear infections can spread from one person to the next. There are three types of ear infections:

  • External ear infection. This is commonly referred to as “swimmer’s ear.”
  • Labyrinthitis. This is inflammation of the inner ear sometimes caused by infection.
  • Middle ear infection. This is also known as otitis media. It’s the most common form of ear infection, specifically in children.

Ear infections are caused by viruses or bacteria that typically develop in the middle ear. This may be the result of illnesses such as the common cold or flu. Some of these infections are highly contagious. They can be transmitted from person to person or surface to surface.

Influenza, in particular, spreads from droplets made when people talk, sneeze, or cough. If infectious droplets land in your mouth or are inhaled, you could contract the virus. This may increase your risk of developing an ear infection.

How do ear infections develop?

Bacteria and viruses can spread to the middle ear and cause infection more easily when you have nasal congestion and swelling in your eustachian tubes, such as with a cold. These narrow tubes run from your middle ear to the back of your throat. They’re responsible for regulating air and draining fluid in your ear.

Swelling and inflammation in your eustachian tubes can cause blockages and allow fluid to accumulate in your middle ear. This can lead to pressure, ear pain, and headaches — common symptoms of an ear infection. Other conditions likely to block your eustachian tubes include:

Treating an ear infection

Many cases of ear infections improve on their own without medical intervention. Your doctor may want to monitor your symptoms for signs of improvement over the course of a week or two.

For younger children with mild ear pain, doctors often recommend a watch-and-wait approach to monitor symptoms for no longer than 48 hours.

If symptoms don’t improve, your doctor may recommend antibiotic treatment or ear drops (for external ear infections). In more severe or chronic cases, surgery may be recommended to drain excess fluid from the middle ear.

Tips for prevention

Ear infections aren’t contagious. But you can avoid spreading germs that may trigger an ear infection by taking simple preventive measures:

  • Wash your hands thoroughly.
  • Cover your mouth when you cough and your nose when you sneeze.
  • Don’t share utensils if you or someone else is sick.
  • Avoid smoking or secondhand smoke.
  • Get vaccinated for the flu and other viruses.
  • Stay home if you have a fever and for at least 24 hours after your fever goes away without the use of medication.

What’s the outlook?

Ear infections alone aren’t contagious. However, the organisms that increase your risk of getting an ear infection can be contagious, such as those from the common cold and flu. With simple, healthy habits, you can reduce your risk of developing an ear infection.

Ear infections are typically mild, but can cause severe discomfort. If your symptoms worsen, see your doctor.