There are two main categories of ear infections that adults can develop -- acute middle ear infections, and outer ear infections. Most ear infections in adults are outer ear infections (otitis externa), but middle ear infections (otitis media) can occur.
Otitis Externa (Swimmer's Ear) in Adults
Outer ear infections are also called swimmer's ear because it is common among swimmers. It occurs when contaminated water enters the outer ear allowing germs to grow and thrive due to warm, moist conditions. Symptoms of swimmer's ear include:
- ear redness
- itchiness inside the ear
- flaking of the skin on the ear
- drainage from the ear which may be pus
- pain when moving the head or touching the ear
Swimmer's ear is fairly easy to diagnose and usually treated with antibiotic ear drops. Sometimes pus and debris will need to be cleaned out by your physician. You can prevent swimmer's ear by using ear plugs before swimming or bathing, gently drying your ears with a blow dryer on the lowest setting after swimming or bathing, not inserting objects in the ears, and not swimming in polluted water. For more information read What is Swimmer's Ear?
Otitis Media (Middle Ear) Infections in Adults
Middle ear infections are most common in children due to the anatomical difference in the shape and size of the Eustachian tube, the tube that runs from the ear canal to the back of the throat. When fluid or bacteria become trapped inside the ear, an infection can occur. Adults who have frequent middle ear infections should see an ENT doctor because surrounding tissues in the nose or throat could be blocking the Eustachian tube and preventing drainage. Ear infections often occur after you've had a cold virus, a bout with seasonal allergies, or after flying on an airplane. It can also be caused by sticking foreign objects, such as Q-tips, in the ear. Symptoms of a middle ear infection include:
- ear pain
- drainage from the ear (occurs from a ruptured ear drum)
- a feeling of fullness or pressure in the ear
- hearing loss
- balance problems (vertigo)
Middle ear infections in adults are often treated with oral antibiotics. Recurrent adult ear infections caused by enlarged structures in the ear or throat, such as turbinates (tiny bones inside of the nose), or nasal polyps may have to be surgically removed or reduced in size. To prevent future infections, avoid cigarette smoke, take a decongestant when you have a cold or before getting on an airplane and avoid trying to clean your ear wax using Q-tips or other objects. For more information read:
While it is unusual for adults to get ear infections, they can usually be treated without complications. Consult your doctor to come up with a treatment plan that's best for you.
Baylor College of Medicine. Eustachian Tube Dysfunction. Accessed: July 3, 2009 from http://www.bcm.edu/oto/jsolab/eust_tub.htm
CDC. "Swimmer's Ear" Otitis Externa. Accessed: July 3, 2009 from http://www.cdc.gov/healthyswimming/swimmers_ear.htm