Ear, Nose & Throat

Are Ear Infections Contagious? Find Out.

Mon, Feb 05, 2024

Are Ear Infections Contagious? Find Out.

Ear infections are a painful and, unfortunately, common occurrence for many families every year. Although adults are susceptible, the risk is more prevalent in young people, with five out of six children usually experiencing at least one ear infection before age 3. If you have a child or other loved one dealing with painful symptoms, you may wonder how to treat them and “Are ear infections contagious?” Keep reading below to learn about ear infections and whether they can spread to you or other household members.

Are Ear Infections Contagious, What Causes Them, And More

Ear infections can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. The most frequent culprit is a bacterial infection called otitis media (OM). This occurs when excess fluid builds up in your middle ear and triggers pain and swelling. The fluid often comes from the back of your nose or sinuses due to a common cold, a sinus infection, or the flu. If the fluid doesn’t drain properly, it can lead to chronic otitis media (COM), which is characterized by inflammation and thickening of the eardrum. COM can also occur if there’s an injury to the eardrum.

What Are Symptoms of an Ear Infection?

If you or a loved one has been battling a recent cold or sinus infection and you notice any of the following signs, seek medical attention as soon as possible.

Common symptoms include:

  • Fever
  • Ear pain
  • Pressure or a feeling of fullness in the ears
  • An earache that gets worse when you are lying down
  • A discharge from the external auditory canal (ear)
  • Swelling and redness around the outer part of the ear
  • Tinnitus (ringing in your ears)

Note that young children who are unable to communicate they’re in pain may also be fussy, refuse to eat, and pull at their ears.

If you or a loved one has any of these symptoms, seek medical attention. Untreated ear infections can cause temporary hearing loss or more lifelong issues.

How Common Are Ear Infections?

Very common. In the U.S., children’s ear infections cause about 30 million doctor visits each year. They top the list of reasons for visiting a doctor.

How Are Ear Infections Treated?

An otolaryngologist holds a model of human ear anatomy.Ear infections tend to last longer than other types of infections, which makes them harder to treat, but the sooner you seek treatment, the less likely you are to experience an infection again.

There are several treatment options for ear infections, including prescription and over-the-counter medications. Your doctor may recommend antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, or both.


Antibiotic ear drops kill off the bacteria causing the infection. Most doctors prescribe amoxicillin or another antibiotic. (If you have a penicillin allergy, your doctor may prescribe cefdinir instead.)

Anti-Inflammatory Medications

If your doctor prescribes an anti-inflammatory medication such as ibuprofen or naproxen, take it exactly as directed. These drugs do not cure ear infections but are pain relievers that also help lower fevers. They also reduce swelling so that the eardrum does not rupture.

In some situations—especially recurring and frequent ear infections—ear tube surgery may be necessary. If that is the case, it is important to find a qualified ear, nose, and throat surgeon near you.

Can Ear Infections Be Contagious?

There’s good news for those who wonder, “Are adult ear infections contagious?” or if this painful condition can be “caught” by the rest of the family. Ear infections themselves are not contagious.

However, the bacterial and viral infections that cause fluid buildup are. For that reason, it’s possible that you will catch the virus or bacteria that your loved one is carrying. These types of infections are usually spread on infected surfaces or in the air through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing. Because of this, keep surfaces clean and avoid close contact with your infected loved ones while still ensuring they are cared for while they are sick. If you do start to experience the same cold or flu symptoms as your infected loved ones, it is important to treat the symptoms as soon as possible so that your infection does not turn into an ear infection.

North Carolina Specialty Hospital Stops Ear Infections in Their Tracks

Ear infections are common, especially among young children, and are usually caused by viral, bacterial, or allergic factors. Antibiotic and anti-inflammatory therapies are sometimes necessary to treat ear infections. Although ear infections are not contagious, the viral or bacterial infections that cause them can be transmitted to others. If you suspect an ear infection in yourself or your loved one, seek treatment as soon as possible. The award-winning North Carolina Specialty Hospital team is here to help you with all your ear infection questions and needs. Request an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat specialist today!

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