Are Ear Infections Contagious?

Are Ear Infections Contagious
Medically reviewed by Dr. Ola Tarabzuni

Key Takeaways

  1. While ear infections are not contagious, it is best to avoid contact with people suffering from viral or bacterial infections like cough or flu, as these microbes can spread the disease from one person to another. 
  2. Ear infection can develop due to compromised immunity and cause severe symptoms if the disease spreads to nearby regions. However, taking proper medicines can decrease the chances of spread and reinfection. 
  3. Finally, if left untreated, ear infections can cause complications like mastoiditis, Labyrinthitis, cholesteatoma, facial paralysis, meningitis, speech and language development problems, and brain abscesses. Early diagnosis and treatment can avoid these complications.

Overview

An ear infection results from a bacterial, viral, or fungal microbe infection. These infections usually infect the middle ear and cause pain inside the ear. Children are more prone to these infections than adults, and they go away alone.

However, if the infection spreads, it can worsen the symptoms, and doctors usually treat it with prescribed medications. You likely developed an ear infection from your previous flu and cold. So you might be thinking, “Can I rule out the possibility of ear infection being contagious?”. Keep reading to explore the answer with appropriate reasoning. 

Are Ear Infections Contagious?

So the short answer to this question is No. Ear infections are not contagious, but if triggered by certain conditions, including viral, bacterial, and fungal infections, they can also spread to others. To further explore the possible implications associated with these infection types, let’s first examine the types of ear infections: 

  1. Labyrinthitis: The infection and inflammation of the inner ear is called Labyrinthitis.
  2. Middle Ear Infection: This type, also called otitis media, is most common, especially in children. 
  3. External Ear Infection: An outer ear infection called the swimmer’s ear. 

In middle ear infections, the causal agents are mostly bacteria or viruses, often accompanying contagious infections like colds or flu. These infections are contagious and can spread from one person to another. Ear infection develops when your immune system is weak due to other infectious diseases like cold and flu that spread from saliva droplets through sneezing, talking, or inhaling. Thus, increasing the chances of contracting an ear infection. Therefore, personal hygiene and abstinence from people suffering from contagious diseases can reduce the spread of risk. 

Although neither of the ear infections (viral, bacterial, or fungal) is contagious, the organisms causing them are. It means that without proper treatment, there is a possibility that these microbes can spread from one person to another and cause infections, if not the same then other types of conditions. 

How Do You Catch An Ear Infection?

If your immune system is weak, it can cause ear infections. For example, the common cold caused by viral infection compromises the body’s natural defense, and it is easier in this state for germs to enter the body and cause infection. Therefore, if you suffer from cold or flu symptoms, get proper treatment to avoid turning it into an ear infection.

The middle ear infection, otitis media (OM), is the most common. Bacteria cause this infection and accompany other symptoms, including excess fluid buildup in the middle ear, which causes pain and swelling. The common cold causes fluid buildup in the sinuses at the back of the nose, which can then transfer to the ear and result in chronic otitis media (OM). Therefore, taking steam and flushing out the excess fluid from the nose can prevent ear infections. Another reason for developing chronic otitis media (COM) is damage to the eardrum, as the bacteria can gain access to the body from the damaged area and cause infection.

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How Fast Can An Ear Infection Develop?

You can develop an ear infection overnight, especially if you are experiencing nasal congestion due to flu. The cold causes swelling of eustachian tubes, which run from the middle ear to the back of the throat, supplying air and draining excess fluid in the ear. Thus, swelling of these tubes can cause inflammation and accumulation of fluid in the ear as the tubes are no longer functional to remove the excess liquid.

This fluid accumulation can create pain, pressure, and headaches as hearing provides balance to our body, and any damage can affect the entire body. The swelling of these tubes can be due to smoking, allergy, changes in air pressure at height, swelling of adenoids, seasonal change, and nasal infection. 

Complications of Ear Infections

Ear infections, mainly middle ear infections, can cause many different complications if left untreated, as follows: 

Mastoiditis

Mastoiditis is a condition in which the infection spreads from the middle ear into the bone under the ear called mastoids. These mastoids cause fever, swelling behind the ear, pain, off-white discharge from the ear, headache, and even hearing loss in some cases. Doctors usually administer antibiotics intravenously for treatment.

Labyrinthitis

In this condition, the inner ear infection affects the ear structure called the labyrinth and sometimes causes vertigo, loss of balance, dizziness, and hearing loss. This infection usually takes a few weeks to go away completely. 

Cholesteatoma

It is a buildup of skin cells inside the inner ear that accumulates due to recurring long-term middle ear infections. These abnormal skin cells develop cholesteatoma, which can damage the delicate ear structures that maintain hearing and the body’s balance. This condition is accompanied by symptoms like tinnitus, which causes hearing sounds from inside the body instead of outside, dizziness, half-face weakness, and even hearing loss.

Facial Paralysis

It is usually the symptom of ear infections like otitis media that can cause facial nerve compression. These nerves run from the face to the brain and control facial expressions. Therefore, compression on these nerves can cause facial paralysis because they cannot supply blood, resulting in little to no facial movement. This can resemble a stroke, but once doctors treat the underlying infection, the condition returns to normal and rarely leads to long-term complications.

Meningitis

This condition causes severe middle ear infections in which the infection spreads to the protective brain and spinal cord layers called meninges. This causes fever, headache, neck stiffness, fast breathing, red blotchy rash, and light sensitivity. The intravenous antibacterial can treat this type of bacterial implication.

Speech and Language Development Problems

Frequent and recurring ear infections can affect a child’s hearing and the risk of developing speech and language development problems. If you notice a similar pattern, contact your healthcare provider immediately. 

Brain abscess

It is a bacterial infection that causes pus and swelling inside the brain. This condition is accompanied by changes in mental state like confusion, fever, seizures, headache, and one-sided body paralysis. It can be treated with antibiotics and joint surgery to remove the pus and stop the infection from spreading. 

Can An Ear Infection Cause a Fever?

Ear infection can also cause fever, which indicates that the immune system is fighting back against foreign agents, i.e., viral, bacterial, or fungal infection. This causes a rise in temperature from 100 degrees Fahrenheit to 104 degrees. According to Seattle’s Children’s Hospital, fever is accompanied in 50% of cases of children with ear infections. 

Do you have Ear Ache? Consult with a Doctor for Treatment Options

How To Stop An Earache?

Ear infection can be treated by the correct diagnosis of the causal agent and appropriate treatment course as per the infection, i.e., antiviral, antibacterial, or antifungal. Usually, the infection goes away in a week or two in adults. In the case of younger children, if the symptoms don’t improve in 2 days, then immediate medical advice should be sought. The doctor usually recommends antibiotic ear drops in some cases, or chronic issues can include the removal of excess fluid from the ear. 

In case of a bacterial infection, antibiotics can improve the situation by killing the infection-causing bacteria and controlling its spread. Your doctor may prescribe you amoxicillin or Cefdinir. Cefdinir is used for ear infection treatment in cases where the patient is allergic to penicillin. However, Cefdinir is less effective against certain bacteria like Haemophilus influenza. 

Other over-the-counter medicines doctors suggest include anti-inflammatory medications like naproxen and ibuprofen, which do not directly treat infections but effectively improve the symptoms. Improvement in symptoms like pain, fever, and swelling avoids other complications like eardrum rupturing. In chronic cases, professional surgeons may also perform eardrum surgery to drain excess fluid.

FAQs

Is an ear infection a bacterial infection?

An ear infection is not solely bacterial; viruses and fungi can also be the cause. However, bacteria cause the most common ear infections, like Streptococcus pneumoniae and Haemophilus influenza, which cause middle ear infections. 

Are ear infections caused by allergies contagious?

No, ear infections are not contagious; however, associated microbes like the germs from cold or flu can spread diseases via sneezing, coughing, handshaking, and talking.

How do I know if my ear infection is bacterial or viral?

A viral ear infection usually lasts seven days maximum and goes away within a week. However, if it is a bacterial ear infection, chances are the condition stays longer, and a proper antibiotic course will be necessary to nullify the disease entirely.

Do hot showers help ear infections?

Yes, a warm compress, steam, and a hot shower can open and relax the airways, reducing the pain and pressure in the ear associated with the infection. 

Does hydrogen peroxide help ear infections?

Yes, a 3% hydrogen peroxide solution can help treat the infections and the buildup, and it is usually safe. However, before applying anything, do a patch test; if it irritates your skin, do not apply. It is better to seek medical advice before trying out something yourself. 

What soothes an ear infection?

You can try many things to get relief from ear infections, like anti-inflammatory medicines to relieve pain, swelling, and fever. Using warm compress, hydrogen peroxide, avoiding Q-tips, using prescribed ear drops to dry the fluid, saltwater gargles, and rest can help your body heal naturally. 

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