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Are Ear Infections Contagious?

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Are Ear Infections Contagious?

writtenByWritten by: Margaret A Spera, NP, APRN
Margaret A Spera, NP, APRN

Margaret A Spera, NP, APRN

Margaret Spera is a Connecticut-based nurse practitioner. She has worked in hospital settings, family practices and senior care facilities for over 40 years.

Read more posts by this author.

February 5, 2021 Read Time - 9 minutes

How Contagious are Ear Infections?

Ear infections are not contagious, however viral and bacterial infections that cause ear infections are contagious. You might ask then, how do you get an ear infection if they are not contagious?

Here, we’ll explore the different types of ear infections, how you may have developed yours, and where you can seek treatment for an ear infection.

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Anatomy of the Ear

Your ears are made up of three main cavities: the inner ear, the middle ear and the outer ear. Each cavity has its own function and structure, and each presents infections in their own way.

Outer Ear

The outer ear is made up of the pinna and the ear canal. The pinna is the part of the ear that we see on the outside of our heads. It is made up of cartilage and soft tissue and is responsible for collecting and guiding sound vibrations from the outside world into the ear canal.

There ear canal is a 2 to 3 cm tube that propels sound to the eardrum. The ear canal is open to the outside world and depends on earwax to protect itself from foreign microorganisms.

Middle Ear

The middle ear is the air-filled space behind the eardrum. Within the middle ear there are three small bones, called ossicles. When sound waves hit the eardrum and cause it to move, the ossicles vibrate, in turn causing fluid in the inner ear to vibrate.

The middle ear is connected to the upper respiratory tract by the Eustachian tubes, which are a pair of narrow tubes that run from each middle ear to high in the back of the throat, behind the nasal passages. The tubes open and close at the throat to:

  • Regulate air pressure in the middle ear
  • Refresh air in the ear
  • Drain normal secretions and debris from the middle ear

Problems with the Eustachian tubes are generally what lead to infections in the middle ear.

Inner Ear

The inner ear is comprised of three sections. Only one, a bony snail-shaped structure called a Cochlea, is involved with hearing. The Cochlea is filled with fluid and small hair-like nerve cells.

The vibrations in this fluid are interpreted by the hair-like nerve cells, which send electrical signals to the auditory nerve, allowing us to hear. The other sections, the vestibule and semicircular canals, are involved with the sensations of equilibrium and balance.

How Do You Get an Ear Infection in the Middle Ear?

Ear infections in the middle ear (acute otitis media) often result from clogging of the Eustachian tubes. Should this occur, the middle ear can no longer drain fluids or moisture properly and it becomes a favorable environment for invasive microorganisms to multiply.

This condition is not contagious and cannot be transferred from one person to another.

The Eustachian tubes are less developed in young children and infants (more narrow and horizontal), which is what causes ear infections to be more common in children.

Children in the age range of 3 months to 3 years old are at heightened risk of developing an ear infection due to the susceptibility of their Eustachian tubes to blockage.

Obstruction of the Eustachian tubes (possibly resulting in an ear infection) can result from the following:

  • Viral Infections – Of the causes of ear infections, the most common trigger is the common cold or flu. Other forms of upper respiratory infections can also cause swelling of the Eustachian tube, which affects the tube’s ability to deliver regular airflow to the middle ear. Although acute otitis media is not contagious, these viral infections that sometimes trigger an ear infection are contagious.
  • AllergiesAllergies to pollen, food, or animal dander can be one of the causes of ear infections. One symptom of these types of allergies is obstruction of the Eustachian tubes, similar to the common cold or flu. In some cases, exposure to smoke, fumes, and various types of airborne toxins can cause swelling in the Eustachian tube and lead to ear infections. Allergies are not contagious nor are reactions to airborne toxins.
  • Bacteria – In rare circumstances where your autoimmune reaction is lowered by other conditions, bacteria can be the cause of an ear infection. In such cases, bacteria often attack the middle ear after a viral infection or an allergy. Bacteria can cause damage to the middle ear, often triggering high fevers and hearing loss. The most common bacteria to cause ear infections are Streptococcus pneumoniae, Group A streptococcus, Haemophilus influenzae, and Moraxella catarrhalis; all of which are contagious. If these bacteria strains are transferred from person to person, then an ear infection could potentially result as a complication.
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How Do You Get an Ear Infection in the Outer Ear?

Are ear infections contagious if they are in the outer ear? There are a number of factors that can result in an outer ear infection (acute otitis externa), and fortunately none of them are contagious.

The primary risk factor for developing an outer ear infection is irritation of the ear canal. This occurs when water, sand, or other debris get inside the ear canal.

This often occurs after swimming, which is what causes ear infections of this sort to be colloquially termed “swimmer’s ear”. Swimming in dirty water with high bacteria counts is likely to result in an outer ear infection.

Bacteria are the most likely culprit of an outer ear infection, but fungal infections are possible and viral infections can occur here as well.

Some of the causes of an outer ear infection include:

  • Too much moisture in the ear – Bacteria like water, so when excess water remains in your ear canal after swimming, showering, sweating, or from excessively humid weather, bacterial infections are more likely to occur.
  • Scratches, abrasions, or other irritations to the ear canal – The skin inside the ear canal is very sensitive and small nicks can cause irritation or temporary damage. If that occurs, bacteria will be more likely to grow inside the ear canal. “Cleaning” earwax out of the ear using cotton swabs or hairpins is not recommend as it can cause irritation of the ear canal and be what causes ear infections. Furthermore, using cotton swabs is most likely to push earwax further into the ear canal causing blockage and reduced hearing. Other objects in the ear that can be causes of ear infections after irritating the ear canal include fingers, headphones, and hearing aids.
  • Sensitivity reactions – Other objects can irritate the ear canal such as hairspray and jewelry. Jewelry can be irritating for persons with eczema or allergies.

How Do You Get an Ear Infection in the Inner Ear?

The inner ear receives mechanical vibrations from the middle ear and translates them to electrical signals that are interpreted by the brain. The inner ear also provides balance for the body and a sense of equilibrium. It is less accessible to foreign microorganisms when compared to the middle and outer ear, however, infections of the inner ear do unfortunately occur.

An inner ear infection causes a condition known as labyrinthitis, which is the swelling and irritation of the inner ear. Such an ear infection causes symptoms such as vertigo, dizziness, hearing loss, nausea or vomiting, and tinnitus (ringing in the ear).

Are ear infections contagious in the inner ear? No, but similar to middle ear infections, the pathogens behind an ear infection are contagious. Viruses are the most common causes of ear infections in the inner ear, although sometimes a bacterial infection in the middle ear spreads to the inner ear.

Common causes of infection in the inner ear include:

  • Cold or Flu viruses – The most common causes of ear infections in the inner ear are cold and flu viruses. They can spread from the respiratory system into the middle ear and then into the inner ear.
  • Other viruses – There are less common viral causes of ear infections including measles, herpes, mumps, and glandular fever.
  • Complications of a middle ear infection – A middle ear infection can spread into the inner ear. This is the most common cause for a bacterial infection in the inner ear.
  • Ear damage after a head injury – Injury to the ear or head can expose the inside of your body to unwanted bacteria.
  • Book on our free mobile app or website.

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When to Contact a Doctor For an Ear Infection

If you think you are experiencing ear infection symptoms and the symptoms last longer than one or two days, you should consult with a doctor. Sometimes ear infections do resolve on their own after a couple of days, but if the pain worsens or lingers, you should seek medical attention.

Additionally, if you have fluid draining from your ear, your hearing is impaired by any of the symptoms of ear infections, or if you suspect you have an inner ear infection, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

If properly treated, ear infections will not lead to any other complications. If left untreated your ear infection can, in rare cases, pose more serious health issues, including:

  • Mastoiditis – a rare inflammation of a bone that is adjacent to the ear.
  • Hearing loss
  • Eardrum perforation
  • Facial nerve paralysis
  • Meniere’s disease – a disease that manifests as symptoms of vertigo, hearing loss, pressure in the ears and ringing in the ears.

Letting an ear infection go on without treatment can lead to permanent hearing loss and possible spread of the infection to other parts of your head. If you suspect you might have an ear infection, consult with an online doctor today to get the treatment you need as soon as possible.


Read More From Our Ear Infection Series:


Sources:

PlushCare is dedicated to providing you with accurate and trustworthy health information.

pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov. Current management of pediatric acute otitis media. Accessed on February 6, 2021 at https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20109045/

medlineplus.gov. Labyrinthitis. Accessed on February 6, 2021 at https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/001054.htm

cdc.gov. Ear Infection. Accessed on February 6, 2021 at https://www.cdc.gov/antibiotic-use/community/for-patients/common-illnesses/ear-infection.html

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