Ear infections are a condition that commonly affects children, and you may notice that a group of children all get ear infections around the same time. This can lead people to wrongly assume that ear infections are contagious.
So are ear infections contagious? Ear infections are not contagious, but the infection that causes them, such as the cold or flu, is. Let’s go over everything you need to know about ear infections, which includes the causes, types, and how to treat them.
Table of Contents
- Main Causes of Ear Infections
- Symptoms of an Ear Infection
- Is an Ear Infection Viral or Bacterial?
- Types of Ear Infections
- Can an Ear Infection Spread to the Other Ear?
- Can Ear Infections Be Contagious?
- Are Ear Infections Contagious in Babies?
- How to Treat Ear Infections?
- When Should You See a Doctor?
- Key Takeaways
Main Causes of Ear Infections
Ear infections result when a bacteria or virus travels into the middle ear through the eustachian tube. You have one of these in each ear, so you can get an ear infection in either ear. This tube connects the middle ear to the back of the throat, so if there is a virus or bacteria in your throat, it can travel to the middle ear and infect that area of the body through this method.
It’s also possible for the contagion to cause the eustachian tube to swell which, if severe enough, can cause this tube to become blocked. The eustachian tube plays an important role in draining the middle ear of fluids that it produces, so when the tube becomes blocked, these fluids instead build up in the middle ear.
This eustachian tube is often shorter and has less of a slope in children when compared to adults, which can cause more problems. This anatomy allows the eustachian tube to clog more easily, which is why children often have ear infections more often than adults. The fluid that gets trapped in the middle ear can become infected by a virus or bacteria which then causes a lot of pain.
Symptoms of an Ear Infection
Some symptoms of an ear infection include:
- ear pain
- loss of appetite
- poor sleep
- difficulty hearing
- drainage from the ear
Is an Ear Infection Viral or Bacterial?
An ear infection could be due to either a viral or bacterial infection. In many cases, someone will get an ear infection after they have had a cold or other respiratory infection. If they had a viral infection, the ear infection is likely also viral, and the same with bacterial infections.
Viral and bacterial infections can also transmit to the middle ear due to the action of the adenoids, which are pads of tissue located at the back of the nasal cavity. The adenoids play an important role in reacting to passing viruses and bacteria as a part of the immune system. However, in some cases, they can trap these contagions, and since the adenoids are close to the opening of the eustachian tubes, they allow for an infection of the middle ear. In addition, if the adenoids swell, they can cause the eustachian tubes to close due to how close they are to them. If the eustachian tubes are closed, fluid cannot drain and will build up.
Types of Ear Infections
The two most common ear infections are the middle ear infection (otitis media) and swimmer’s ear (otitis externa).
Otitis Media (OM)
Acute Otitis Media (AOM)
This type of ear infection is both the most common and least serious. In this type of infection, the middle ear becomes infected and swollen, and there is fluid trapped behind the eardrum. Some individuals with this type of ear infection may develop a fever.
Otitis Media with Effusion (OME)
In this type of infection, there may be some fluid left behind the eardrum after the ear infection has run its course. There are not always symptoms associated with this remaining fluid, but a doctor can spot if there is any lingering fluid behind the eardrum.
Otitis Externa is a bacterial infection of the external ear canal, which is sometimes referred to as swimmer’s ear. It is typically caused by water that enters the ear canal after swimming or showering, which then becomes trapped. This causes the area to become moist and favorable for bacterial growth. Swimmer’s ears are not contagious.
Can an Ear Infection Spread to the Other Ear?
If the virus or bacteria that infects the one middle ear gets into the other eustachian tube, the other ear can become infected as well.
Can Ear Infections Be Contagious?
Ear infections are not contagious. However, if the ear infection is from a viral or bacterial infection, that can be contagious. It’s possible to spread these germs when coughing or sneezing, so best practices include having anyone who is sick, including those with an ear infection, cover their mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing. Everyone should also wash their hands frequently and avoid touching the mouth or nose with their hands.
Are Ear Infections Contagious in Babies?
Are ear infections contagious in babies? Well, the short answer is that they are not contagious in any age group, but babies are the most susceptible to both illnesses and ear infections. This is because babies do not have a very strong immune system, so they can easily catch any virus or bacteria transmitted to them.
In addition, younger children have eustachian tubes that are shorter and less sloped. Because of this, if a baby does get sick, it is very easy for the infection to spread from the throat to the middle ear, causing an infection.
How to Treat Ear Infections?
Treatment for an ear infection can depend on many factors, such as someone’s age, the severity of the infection, and what caused the infection (virus or bacteria). Most often, a doctor recommends medication to reduce fever and relieve pain. For cases of mild ear infections, your doctor may choose to wait a few days to see if it goes away on its own.
If your doctor believes that the ear infection is due to a bacterial infection, they may prescribe antibiotics. Antibiotics will help treat ear infections caused by bacteria, but if a virus causes the infection, antibiotics will not help, although sometimes they do wait a few days first to see if the infection clears on its own.
It is essential that, if your doctor does prescribe antibiotics, you take them for the entire course. Even if you feel better, discontinuing antibiotics too early can create antibiotic-resistant bacteria, which can be more challenging to treat.
In most cases, ear infections will clear up on their own, with no need for medication. However, for babies, or in the case of a severe ear infection or one that has not gone away on its own, antibiotics are used.
When Should You See a Doctor?
If you notice any of the symptoms of an ear infection, specifically ear pain or a fever, you will want to see a doctor. To diagnose an ear infection, the doctor will look inside the ear with an otoscope. They are looking for an infected eardrum, which can appear swollen, inflamed, or red.
They may also check for fluid buildup in the middle ear using a pneumatic otoscope, which is a device that allows them to blow a small amount of air on the eardrum. If there is fluid inside the ear, the eardrum will not move back and forth as easily as it does when there is no fluid buildup.
Because ear infections most often stem from other infections and illnesses, doctors usually check the throat and nasal passage and listen to your breathing to look for any signs of an upper respiratory infection.
Get Help from an Online Doctor
While an online doctor cannot look inside your ear to see if there is an infection, they are still a valuable tool if you cannot get to an in-person doctor. An online doctor can take note of your symptoms, and in some cases, just from that, they can conclude that an ear infection is likely. Since watchful waiting is the general practice for ear infections, they may advise you on that and can offer suggestions for pain management.
Online doctors are also able to write prescriptions, so they can order antibiotics if they believe that is the best treatment for you. But again, they may need to take a look inside your ear in order to conclude what you or your child have.
If the ear infection seems severe, the virtual urgent care doctor may recommend an in-person visit.
How Do You Catch Ear Infections?
An ear infection is a common condition that can be caused by a number of different things. One of the most common causes is a buildup of fluid in the middle ear. This can happen when the Eustachian tube, which drains fluid from the middle ear, becomes blocked.
People who have had a recent cold or upper respiratory infection are especially susceptible to ear infections, as the same viruses that cause these illnesses can also lead to an ear infection. In addition, people who suffer from allergies or asthma are also at increased risk, as these conditions can cause inflammation of the Eustachian tubes, which connect the throat to the middle ear.
Can an Ear Infection Spread to Another Person?
No ear infections are not contagious so they can’t spread from person to person. But if the ear infection is caused by a bacteria or virus, that bacteria or virus might be contagious and could spread to other people.
How Can You Tell if an Ear Infection Is Viral or Bacterial?
The only way to know for sure if an ear infection is viral or bacterial is to get a medical diagnosis. However, there are some symptoms that can help you and your doctor figure out if it’s likely to be viral or bacterial.
For instance, ear infections that come on suddenly and resolve quickly are more likely to be viral. Bacterial ear infections tend to cause more severe symptoms that last longer. Additionally, people with viral ear infections often have other respiratory illnesses like a cold or the flu.
So are ear infections contagious? No, they aren’t! But ear infections often result from a viral or bacterial infection that then infects the middle ear. This occurs because the eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the throat, allowing a pathway for contagions. It’s also possible for this tube to become inflamed and close up, trapping water within the eardrum and causing pain.
In most cases, the treatment for an ear infection involves watchful waiting to see if the infection subsides on its own, which it does in most cases. An online doctor is a valuable tool to instruct you on pain management options and at what point you should inquire about antibiotics.
- Ear Infection (Otitis Media): Symptoms, Causes, Prevention & Treatment. (2021). https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/8613-ear-infection-otitis-media
- Ear Infections in Children. (2021). https://www.health.ny.gov/publications/4815
- Swimming-Related Illnesses, Ear Infections. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/healthywater/swimming/swimmers/rwi/ear-infections.html
- Ear Infection. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/ear-infection.html