Middle ear infections are often thought of as a childhood ailment. In the U.S., 80% of children have at least one middle ear infection before the age of three, and ear infections are the most common condition in which antibiotics are prescribed for children. Adults can also develop ear infections. About 20% of ear infections occur in adults. Getting an ear infection as an adult can be more serious than getting one as a child.
Otitis media, also known as a middle ear infection, is an infection behind your eardrum. Ear infections occur when fluid behind the eardrum is unable to drain. Children are more often affected than adults because of differences in their anatomy. Eustachian tubes are small tubes that connect the upper part of the throat to the middle ear. These tubes help drain fluid out of the ear. Eustachian tubes in younger children are more horizontal and are shorter (which makes it harder for fluid to drain out of the ears) when compared to older children and adults whose Eustachian tubes are more sloped and are longer. Middle ear infections occur when conditions such as the common cold, allergies, sore throat, or upper respiratory infections cause the eustachian tubes to swell and prevent fluid from draining.
Otitis media can be “acute,” meaning it occurs suddenly and is short-term, or “chronic,” meaning it reoccurs over months or years. Acute otitis media (AOM) is usually painful. Adults may complain of symptoms such as feelings of full or plugged ear(s), discharge from the ear(s), fever, and difficulty hearing. Children may present with fussiness, crying more than usual, tugging or pulling at the affected ear(s), difficulty sleeping, fever, discharge from the ear(s), headache, and loss of appetite. Chronic otitis media, on the other hand, is not usually painful but may lead to impaired hearing or a ruptured eardrum.
Ear infections can resolve without any treatment so your healthcare provider may first recommend a watchful waiting approach. Your healthcare provider may recommend certain over-the-counter treatments to help with symptom relief. Antibiotics may be prescribed by your healthcare provider based on your age and the severity of the infection. It is important to tell your healthcare provider if you develop new or worsening symptoms or if your ear infection hasn’t resolved itself or improved within 48–72 hours.
People who have chronic or recurrent ear infections may have to see a specialist, such as an otolaryngologist. In certain cases, the insertion of temporary ear tubes to help fluid drain may be recommended by the specialist. Treatment and recommendations are made on an individual basis, so it is always best to check with your healthcare provider.
While there is no guaranteed way to prevent ear infections, one of the best ways to reduce your risk of developing middle ear infections as an adult is to avoid smoking and secondhand smoke. Smoking makes people more susceptible to upper respiratory infections and has been shown to cause inflammation in the body, making it harder for the body to ward off infection.
Practicing good personal hygiene and staying away from people who are sick are best practices for avoiding illness.
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