Ear infections may be more common in children than in adults, but grown-ups are still susceptible to these infections. Unlike childhood ear infections, which are often minor and pass quickly, adult ear infections are frequently signs of a more serious health problem.

If you’re an adult with an ear infection, you should pay close attention to your symptoms and see your doctor.

There are three main types of ear infections. They correspond to the three main parts of the ear: inner, middle, and outer.

Inner ear infection

A condition diagnosed as an inner ear infection may actually be a case of inflammation, and not an actual infection. In addition to ear pain, symptoms include:

  • dizziness
  • nausea
  • vomiting

Inner ear trouble may be a sign of a more serious condition, such as meningitis.

Middle ear infection

The middle ear is the area right behind your eardrum.

A middle ear infection is also known as otitis media. It’s caused by fluid trapped behind the eardrum, which causes the eardrum to bulge. Along with an earache, you may sense fullness in your ear and have some fluid drainage from the affected ear.

Otitis media can come with a fever. You may also have trouble hearing until the infection starts to clear.

Outer ear infection

The outer ear is that part of your ear that extends out from your eardrum to the outside of your head.

An outer ear infection is also known as otitis externa. An outer ear infection often starts as an itchy rash. The ear may become:

  • painful
  • tender
  • red
  • swollen

Ear infections are often caused by bacterial infections. But whether you get an outer or middle ear infection depends on how you become infected.

Middle ear infection

A middle ear infection often originates from a cold or other respiratory problem. The infection moves to one or both ears through the eustachian tubes. These tubes regulate air pressure inside your ear. They connect to the back of your nose and throat.

An infection can irritate the eustachian tubes and cause them to swell. Swelling can prevent them from draining properly. When fluid inside these tubes can’t drain, it builds up against your eardrum.

Learn more: What you should know about eustachian tube dysfunction »

Outer ear infection

An outer ear infection is sometimes called swimmer’s ear. That’s because it often starts as a result of water that remains in your ear after swimming or bathing. The moisture becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. If your outer ear is scratched or if you irritate the outer lining of your ear by putting your fingers or other objects in your ear, a bacterial infection can occur.

One of the reasons children are more likely than adults to get ear infections is that their eustachian tubes are smaller and more horizontal than the tubes in most adults. If you have small eustachian tubes or you have tubes that haven’t developed more of a slope, you’re at a higher risk for developing an ear infection.

You may also be more likely to get an ear infection if you smoke or are around a lot of secondhand smoke. Having seasonal allergies or year-round allergies also puts you at risk. Developing a cold or an upper respiratory infection also increases your risk.

If your only symptom is an earache, you may want to wait a day or two before seeing a doctor. Sometimes ear infections resolve on their own within a few days. If the pain isn’t getting better and you’re running a fever, you should see your doctor as soon as you can. If fluid is draining from your ear or you’re having trouble hearing, you should also seek medical attention.

During your appointment, your doctor will get your medical history and listen as you describe your symptoms. They’ll also use an otoscope to get a detailed look at your outer ear and your eardrum.

An otoscope is a handheld device with a light and magnifying lens that doctors use to check the health of your ear. A pneumatic otoscope can emit a puff of air in the ear.

When air is pushed against your eardrum, the way the eardrum reacts can help diagnose the problem. If the eardrum moves easily, you may not have a middle ear infection, or at least it may not be serious. If the eardrum barely moves, it suggests that there is fluid pressing against it from the inside.

Another test used to diagnose and evaluate a possible ear infection is called tympanometry. It’s used to evaluate how well your ear is working. A simple hearing test may also be done, especially if it appears that an infection has caused some hearing loss.

The type of ear infection you have will determine the type of treatment. In many cases of middle and outer ear infections, antibiotics are necessary.

Treating middle ear infections

You may be prescribed antibiotics. Some antibiotics may be taken orally. Others can be applied directly to the site of the infection with ear drops. Medications for pain, such as over-the-counter pain relievers and anti-inflammatory drugs may also be used to manage your symptoms.

If you’re still experiencing cold or allergy symptoms, you may be advised to take a decongestant, nasal steroids, or an antihistamine.

Another helpful technique is called autoinsufflation. It’s meant to help clear your eustachian tubes. You do this by squeezing your nose, closing your mouth, and very gently exhaling. This can send air through the eustachian tubes to help drain them.

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Treating outer ear infections

The outer ear should be carefully cleaned. That should be followed by the application of antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory medications on your ear.

Antibiotics may be prescribed if your doctor determines that the infection is bacterial.

If you have a viral infection, you may simply need to tend to the irritation on your ear and wait for the infection to resolve itself. Depending on the type of virus involved, more specialized treatment may be necessary.

Proper treatment for your ear infection should eliminate any complications. If you let an ear infection go too long without treatment, you risk permanent hearing loss and possibly having the infection spread to other parts of your head. If you suspect that you may have an ear infection, have it checked out by our doctor.

To help prevent an ear infection of any kind, follow these tips:

  • Keep your ears clean by washing them and using a cotton swab carefully. Make sure you dry your ears completely after swimming or taking a shower.
  • Don’t smoke, and avoid secondhand smoke as much as you can.
  • Manage your allergies by avoiding triggers and keeping up with allergy medications.
  • Wash your hands thoroughly, and try to avoid people who have colds or other upper respiratory problems.
  • Make sure your vaccines are up to date.

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Read more: 13 Ways to get water out of your ear »

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