Is an ear infection contagious?
An ear infection could be excruciating to deal with. If you have close relatives suffering ear infections, especially those that suffer recurrent ear infections, you may want to know if an ear infection is contagious.
In answering the question of whether an ear infection is contagious, it is important to understand what an ear infection really is.
What is an ear infection?
In simple terms, an ear infection is an infection that affects the air-filled space behind the eardrum that contains the tiny vibrating bones on the ear. An ear infection usually results from viruses, bacteria, a combination of viruses and bacteria, or allergies.
Ear infections are not contagious. However, one should take note that sore throats and cold which usually come before ear infections are contagious.
Children are more likely than adults to get an ear infection.
There are however two types of ear infections you should know about. These are
- Otitis media ( middle ear infection) Otitis media occurs when mucus containing bacteria collects in the middle ear space, usually during or shortly after a viral upper respiratory infection (ie, a cold).
Ear infections can be very painful. In older children, most ear infections resolve by themselves in a few days. However, in children younger than 24 months, ear infections can last longer.
These younger children may benefit from antibiotics. Sometimes, pressure from the infection breaks the eardrum, and pus drains from the ear.
- Otitis externa ( swimmer’s ear) Moisture and bacteria from water in a pool, lake, or stream promotes infection of the skin of the ear canal, producing painful swelling. Pus may collect in the ear canal.
Who can get an ear infection?
Anyone can get an ear infection. However, children are more likely to get an ear infection than adults. Your likelihood of getting an ear infection depends on certain factors. These factors are;
- Allergies: Allergies cause inflammation (swelling) of the nasal passages and upper respiratory tract, which can enlarge the adenoids. Enlarged adenoids can block the eustachian tube, preventing ear fluids from draining. This leads to fluid buildup in the middle ear, causing pressure, pain and possible infection.
- Group child care. Children cared for in group settings are more likely to get colds and ear infections than are children who stay home. The children in group settings are exposed to more infections, such as the common cold.
- Ethnicity: Native Americans and Hispanic children have more ear infections than other ethnic groups.
- Age: Infants and young children (between 6 months of age and 2 years) are at greater risk for ear infections.
- Poor air quality. Exposure to tobacco smoke or high levels of air pollution can increase the risk of ear infections.
- chronic illnesses: People with chronic (long-term) illnesses are more likely to develop ear infections, especially patients with immune deficiency and chronic respiratory disease, such as cystic fibrosis and asthma.
- Family history: The tendency to get ear infections can run in the family.
- Colds: Having colds often increases the chances of getting an ear infection.
- Infant 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.
What are the signs and symptoms of an ear infection?
- Pain inside the ear
- Ear drainage
- Muffled hearing
- Sore throat
Signs and symptoms of an ear infection in babies
For babies, Intense pain in your child’s ear is usually the first sign of an ear infection. Young children can tell you that their ear hurts, but babies may only cry. Your child may repeatedly pull on the ear that hurts.
The pain is usually worse at night and when your child is chewing, sucking a bottle, or lying down. That’s when the pressure is at its greatest. Other symptoms include a runny nose, cough, fever, vomiting, or dizziness, and hearing loss.
What are the causes of an ear infection?
An ear infection is usually caused by viruses and bacteria. Many times, an ear infection can start after a cold or other respiratory infection.
The bacteria or virus travel into the middle ear through the eustachian tube (there’s one in each ear). This tube connects the middle ear to the back of the throat. The bacteria or virus can also cause the eustachian tube to swell.
This swelling can cause the tube to become blocked, which keeps normally produced fluids to build up in the middle ear instead of being able to be drained away.
More to it, the eustachian tube is shorter and has less of a slope in children than in adults. This physical difference makes these tubes easier to become clogged and more difficult to drain.
A child’s adenoids (the little bits of tissue that hang above the tonsils at the back of the throat) sometimes can block the opening of Eustachian tubes because they are larger in young children. The trapped fluid can become infected by a virus or bacteria, causing pain.
How do I treat an ear infection?
An ear infection if left untreated can lead to unnecessary pain and permanent hearing loss for your child.
Ear infections usually go away in a few days.so Your doctor will likely treat your pain and fever with over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers or ear drops.
If the infection is not better in a few days after treatment starts, you may need to go back to the doctor. At that point, your doctor may prescribe an antibiotic if the infection is caused by bacteria.
Doctors are cautious about prescribing antibiotics for ear infections unless they are chronic and frequent.
How to prevent an ear infection
To prevent ear infections, you need to prevent the infections that cause them. Measures include:
- Stay away from coughing and sneezing people.
- Wash your hands frequently (for about 20 seconds).
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands (viruses like to gain entry into your body via these moist areas).
- Get vaccinated against viruses and bacteria like the flu, COVID-19, and Streptococcus pneumonia. Make sure your children are currently on their vaccinations, too.
- Don’t smoke and avoid exposure to secondhand smoke.
- Breastfeed your baby for at least six months. Breast milk has antibodies that can ward off infections.
- Don’t let your baby lie down while feeding. Drinking while in a prone posture increases the likelihood of ear infections.
- Control allergies. Inflammation and mucus caused by allergic reactions can block the eustachian tube and make ear infections more likely.
- Watch for mouth breathing or snoring. Constant snoring or breathing through the mouth may be caused by large adenoids. These may contribute to ear infections. An exam by an otolaryngologist, and even surgery to remove the adenoids (adenoidectomy), may be necessary.
Do I have to cover my ears if I go outside with an ear infection?
No, you do not need to cover your ears if you go outside.
Can I swim with an ear infection?
Swimming is okay as long as you don’t have a tear (perforation) in your eardrum or have drainage coming out of your ear.
An ear infection is not contiguous. It is more common, especially in children than adults. They’re usually caused by viruses, bacteria, and in other cases allergies. Most ear infections resolve on their own or can be treated with a short course of antibiotics.
The pain associated with ear infections can be treated with pain relievers.
In rare cases, an untreated ear infection can lead to hearing loss and/or more widespread infection. If you suspect an ear infection, consult your healthcare provider. They can best advise you about any possible treatments.