Ear, Nose & Throat

Are Ear Infections Contagious?

Mon, Dec 05, 2022

Are Ear Infections Contagious?

Ear infections are a common inconvenience 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 the age of 3. If you have a child or other loved one dealing with the pain of an ear infection, you may be wondering, “Can ear infections be contagious?” Keep reading below to learn about the ins and outs of ear infections, as well as whether they can be shared with you or other members of your household.

What Causes Ear Infections?

Image of ear, nose, and throat doctor checking patient’s ear.

Ear infections are one of the most common childhood illnesses. They 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.

How Common Is It?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), around 30 million people suffer from OM each year. That means that more than half of all American children will experience an ear infection at some point during their lives. In fact, almost 90% of children between the ages of 6 months and 5 years experience an OM ear infection each year.

Other types of ear infections include acute otitis externa (AOE), which is inflammation of the outer ear canal, and chronic suppurative otitis media (CSOM), which is an accumulation of pus in the middle ear. These conditions can occur together or separately.

What Are Common Ear Infection Symptoms?

If you or your loved one has been battling a recent cold or sinus infection and you begin to notice any of these common signs, it’s important to see your doctor as soon as possible.

Common symptoms of ear infections 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)

If you have any of these symptoms, seek medical attention as soon as possible. Untreated ear infections can cause temporary hearing loss or more lifelong issues.

What are Some Ear Infection Treatments?

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 a number of different treatments for ear infections, including prescription and over-the-counter medications. Your doctor may recommend antibiotics, anti-inflammatory medications, or both. You should always follow your doctor’s instructions carefully.


Antibiotic ear drops kill off the bacteria causing the infection. Most doctors prescribe amoxicillin or another antibiotic. However, if you have a penicillin allergy, your doctor may suggest using cefdinir instead. Cefdinir is not as effective against certain types of bacteria that cause ear infections (such as Haemophilus influenzae), but it can be used to treat other kinds of bacterial infections in the middle ear and throat.

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 they help relieve pain and fever. They also reduce swelling so that the eardrum does not rupture. If you don’t feel better after taking these medicines, call your doctor right away.

In some situations—especially those of 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.

Is an Ear Infection Contagious?

While ear infections are not contagious, the bacterial and viral infections that cause them are. For that reason, it is 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, it is important to do what you can to 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.


Ear infections are common, especially among young children. They’re usually caused by viral, bacterial, or allergic factors. Antibiotic and anti-inflammatory therapy is sometimes necessary to treat ear infections. Although ear infections are not contagious on their own, 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 team at the award-winning North Carolina Specialty Hospital is here to help you with all of your ear infection needs. Request an appointment with an ear, nose, and throat provider today!

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