In the US, annually around 12% of children below the age of 18 reportedly suffer from ear infections. Ear infections are attributed to bacterial or viral infections, and often require intervention from a trained ENT specialist. While infections do not preclude categories of individuals, ear infections are relatively more common among youngsters when compared with adults. Due to the relatively higher prevalence of ear infections among youngsters, there are apprehensions that close contact in schools and colleges are a reason for the higher infections. Consequently, the question – is ear infection contagious? – is the most common among parents. Here is all that you need to know about the infection, which will address all apprehensions and doubts.

What causes ear infections and is ear infection contagious?

Ear infections are caused in the middle ear as a result of bacteria or virus, and is in most cases the result of other problems. For instance, a cold, some kind of allergy or common flu can trigger an ear infection. The space behind the eardrum gets infected, and as a result of infection in the air filled space, individuals experience ear pain, inflammation in the ear, loss of appetite and headache. In some cases there is a possibility of fluid draining from the ear as a result of the infection, and in some cases, there is a possibility of loss of hearing temporarily. While most of the infections resolve when the underlying condition is resolved, some require medical intervention and antibiotics. Before we look at the question is ear infection contagious? It is important to understand more about how ear infections manifest.

Inflammation and congestion in the Eustachian tubes occur as a result of multiple conditions that include common cold, flu and allergies. The Eustachian tubes are important, and ensure that the air containing space behind the middle ear is drained of secretions and epithelial matter. This draining action is essential, as the air in the middle ear is critical for hearing functions, permitting the ear drum and ossicles to transmit the sound pressure. When this space becomes infected, it impacts hearing, in addition to causing pain. When the Eustachian tube is blocked as a result of infections, temporary hearing loss is possible and in severe conditions the effects may be intense, requiring hospitalization. The most common causes for ear infections include allergies, cold, common flu, smoking, sinusitis, and climatic changes.

Is ear infection contagious? Is it right to assume that ear infections can spread from person to person?

A binary answer to this question cannot be provided. There is more to understand before arriving at conclusions. The question is best answer in parts. Ear infections are not contagious. In other words, ear infections cannot pass from one person to another person due to close physical contact. Ear infections cannot spread by sharing personal objects, or by living with a person who has had an ear infection. Normal gestures and social behavior, such as hugging or touching will not cause ear infections from spreading from one person to another. It may appear that the first part of the answer to the question – is ear infection contagious? is conclusive. However, as mentioned earlier, it is not conclusive in nature but is linked to the second part of the answer.

Ear infections are attributed to other conditions. In most cases other conditions may have manifested and it is easy to understand the reason behind the ear infections. However, in some cases, the underlying conditions may not have manifested fully. In other words, the underlying conditions may be present but not yet experienced. In such instances it may not be possible to fully understand the reason behind the ear infection. The fact remains that ear infections are in most cases, the result of underlying infections.

As mentioned earlier the common causes for ear infections are allergies, cold and flu. Some of these conditions are contagious and can spread from one person to another. In such instances, the actual underlying infections or conditions pass from one person to another. Here, in the context of the question – is ear infection contagious? – it is important to understand that it is the underlying conditions that are spread and not the ear infection. These conditions, can, consequently manifest into ear infections. Therefore, it can be conclusively claimed that ear infections are not contagious, but the conditions that are the reasons behind the ear infections are contagious in nature. This can result in individuals developing ear infections. Here, it is not necessary that every individual who has common cold, flu or allergies will develop ear infections. A percentage of individuals with the conditions may end up with ear infections.

As part of the answer to the question – is ear infection contagious? – there is an interesting possibility. An individual with any one of the underlying conditions may not have ear infections, but the individual who has received the underlying infection from another person may end up with an ear infection. Similarly, the individual with any of the underlying conditions may have an ear infection, but the individual who has received the infection from someone, need not necessarily have an ear infection. The possibility of developing an ear infection from any of the underlying conditions depends on multiple factors – for instance, if the condition has spread to the Eustachian tubes or the space behind the middle ear. If the underlying bacterial or viral infection has not reached the tubes or the space, the possibility of ear infection is reduced.

What are the three different types of ear infection?

Now that we have understood the answer to the question – is ear infection contagious? it is time to delve a little more deeper into the actual infection. The three different types of ear infection are middle ear infection, external ear infection and labyrinthitis.

Middle ear infections, commonly known as otitis media are the most common among children and account for the statistics quoted globally. This is the most common form of infection and is attributed to common cold, sore throat or can also be due to respiratory infections. The risk of children getting the condition increases when the child is exposed to the effects of passive smoking. Families with a history of ear infections are also likely to contend with more middle ear infections among children. Children with reportedly lower immunity are also at risk of contracting ear infections easily. Other reasons are also known to be the causes for ear infections among children. For instance, a child who has been fed bottle milk, while lying on the back, is also at risk of developing the condition. Middle ear infections or otitis media are attributed to problems in the Eustachian tube. This tube is responsible for equalizing pressure between the middle ear and the outer ear. The tube serves as a link between the throat and the middle ear and consequently, when there are issues, drainage is impacted, which results in fluid buildup. As a result of the buildup, bacteria and viruses thrive and this leads to otitis media. Apart from the reason mentioned above, other reasons for otitis media include abnormalities in the Eustachian tube. Within otitis media, there are three different subtypes – acute otitis media, otitis media with effusion and chronic otitis media with effusion. Common symptoms that help to determine otitis media include a pulling sensation in either or both the ears, imbalance while upright, pain in the ear, difficulty in hearing, fever and difficulties in falling asleep. 

With the question – is ear infection contagious? behind us, it is time to look at the various diagnosis used for determining the condition. A thorough physical examination along with sharing of medical history is necessary for diagnosing the condition. This is necessary, as the symptoms of otitis media can sometimes be very similar to that of other conditions. The actual physical examination involves the use of otoscope to examine the outer ear and the eardrum. This instrument permits the specialist to visually inspect the inside of the ear, and has a light at the end. Other models such as the pneumatic model involves the use of air to determine movement inside the eardrum. In addition to hearing tests that help to determine the hearing ability or impact on patient’s hearing, tympanometry is conducted to check the performance of the middle ear. This test is intended to let the specialist determine changes in pressure in the ear.

Treatment options include antibiotics administered either as ear drops or orally, and medication for pain management. In cases, where fluid retention is reported for a long period, specialists may rely on myringotomy for draining the fluid through tubes. This involves creation of a small opening in the eardrum to facilitate ventilation/draining. This will also help to prevent the buildup of fluid inside the ears. Depending on the extent of infection and the area of infection, in some cases it may also be necessary to opt for surgical removal of adenoids. This is the lymph tissue above the roof of the mouth.

Outer ear infections, medically known as otitis externa is a condition where the individual experiences pain and inflammation in the outer ear canal. The condition is mostly attributed to bacterial infections, with relatively lesser known instances of fungal infections. Unlike the middle ear infections, otitis externa can affect individuals at any age, though it is known to commonly infect individuals during summer. One of the reasons for higher prevalence of outer ear infections during summer is swimming which can result in water entering the ear and resulting in an infection. There are two types of out ear infections – acute and chronic. Acute infections occur suddenly and are known to resolve in five or six weeks, with possibilities of a repeat cycle. Chronic infections are known to last longer and in rare cases can also result in permanent hearing loss. The extent of infection depends on the type of infection. For instance, localized infections occur when hair follicles at the ear canal entrance are infected resulting in boils. When significantly more area is infected, it is known to infect the eardrum and is mostly as a result of water entering the ear. The third type of infection are the malignant infections that occur as a result of compromised immune system, and is considered as a serious form of infection.

Common symptoms of outer ear infection include reddish and inflamed ear canal, pain in the ear which aggravates when the ear is touched, discharge, impaired hearing, abnormal increase in temperature, dryness in the area around the ear and a feeling of fullness in the ear. Diagnosis of outer ear infections involve a detailed assessment of medical history and a physical examination. Visual inspection includes looking for foreign objects that may have been stuck in the ear or if heavy ear wax is the reason for the symptoms. The use of the octoscope is relied upon for a detailed examination of the inflammation and infection. Examination includes asking the patient to move the jaw and the ear to understand the extent of pain, if any pain is reported. Swabs are used to collect discharge from the ear to check for the nature of infection –bacterial or fungal. In most of the cases, the condition is known to resolve quickly, however, in some cases, this could take as long as three months to heal completely.

The aim of treatment is to bring down the pain and the inflammation, and to prevent the recurrence of the infection. This is achieved through combination medication of ear drops and pain relief medication. Commonly used medications include paracetamol and ibuprofen for pain and fever, and acidic ear drops for dealing with the bacteria and fungi in the ear. The use of antibiotic ear drops and sprays are also common for treating the condition. In some cases, antibiotics are also combined with corticosteroids. Other medications that are typically used for managing the condition include antifungal ear drops and sprays, and combination treatments that deliver corticosteroids, antibiotics and antifungals in one formulation. These are typically used for managing conditions that are considered as severe.

Labryinthitis, commonly known as an inner ear disorder occurs when one of the two nerves in the inner ear that are responsible for balance and spatial orientation get inflamed. Commonly reported symptoms associated with inner ear disorder include loss of hearing, nausea and dizziness with the feeling of movement when the individual is not moving. This impacts routine activities, especially driving. The condition is attributed to infections, and can be treated upon receiving confirmation though diagnosis. Symptoms are known to onset rapidly and can be intense in nature. While the symptoms may typically fade without any medical intervention, the symptoms are most likely to recur with movement. Unlike other infections, inner ear disorders are not accompanied by pain. However, the loss of balance and vertigo can result in injuring oneself depending on the circumstances. Another unnerving symptom of the condition is the ringing sensation in the ear which can impact routines. Additionally, in some cases, there is a possibility of experiencing difficulty in focusing.

Similar to outer ear infections, labyrinthitis can affect individuals of all ages. Common reasons include viral infections, viruses such as herpes, bacterial infections, respiratory illnesses and other bacterium such as Borrelia burgdorferi and Borrelia mayonii that are associated with Lyme disease. Aggravating conditions include smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, stress full conditions, contraindications with prescription tablets, and severe fatigue. Individuals who are prone to allergies and those who take too much of OTC medications such as aspirin are considered as high risk categories. While there are no precautions to prevent the outbreak of labryinthitis, it is possible to reduce exposure to high risk by avoiding the conditions that are conducive for the inner ear disorder.

Cleaning of the ears and administering ear drops

With conclusive answers to the question is ear infection contagious? it is time to know more about cleaning of the ear and the best manner of administering ear drops. Cleaning of the ear is to be carried out by a specialist ENT. This is designed to prevent infections and involves a procedure called microsuction where a tiny vacuum sucker removes the wax from the ears delicately. This procedure is carried out under microscopic vision. Other methods include syringing, where pressure is used to clear the ears. This method is not used when the patient has an infection, but is only used when the ear needs to be cleaned periodically. When administering ear drops, the best method is to lay with the targeted ear facing up. After the right amount of ear drops are gently dispensed, the patient is advised to remain in the same position for atleast ten minutes. This will permit the mechanism of action of the ear drops to fully function with best results. Whenever ear drops need to be administered to both ears, a gap of ten or fifteen minutes is necessary. This will prevent the drops from the other ear running off, when the patient is lying with the other ear facing upwards for ten minutes.


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