African-American woman with a painful ear infection

Adults can get ear infections, too

Ear infections are incredibly common. Most people will have one at some point during their lifetime – usually in early childhood.

And while it’s much less common, it’s possible for adults to get ear infections, too.

Kristin Downs, APRN, explains the types of ear infections, as well as their symptoms and treatments. Kristin often treats common ailments like ear infections in her role at OSF OnCall Urgent Care.

Types of ear infections

There are two main types of ear infection, depending on whether the infection is in the inner ear or outer ear.

An inner ear infection happens when fluid and inflammation build up in the middle ear, behind the ear drum.

An outer ear infection happens when the ear canal and outer ear become infected. Outer ear infections are sometimes called “swimmer’s ear.

Symptoms of ear infections

An adult with an inner ear infection might experience:

  • Fever
  • Ear pain
  • Decreased or muffled hearing
  • Pain behind the ear
  • Intermittent mild dizziness
  • Enlarged lymph nodes

Otoscope hanging on wall in health care provider's office“Inner ear infections are usually preceded by upper respiratory tract symptoms such as cough, sinus pressure, nasal congestion, runny nose or sneezing,” Kristin said.

Sometimes, the eardrum (also called the tympanic membrane) ruptures. This usually causes less pain and some bleeding from the ear.

“If that happens, protect the ear from wind and do not submerge head underwater for about six weeks,” Kristin said.

Symptoms of an outer ear infection might be slightly different:

  • Pain with any touching or movement of the ear
  • Ear may appear reddened or dark
  • Swelling of the ear
  • Facial pain on the same side as the infected ear
  • Dental pain
  • Enlarged lymph nodes
  • Fluid or pus leaking from the ear
  • Decreased hearing
  • Feeling itchy in on or around the affected ear


Urgent care can treat minor illnesses

Find urgent care near you

Ear infections are sometimes treated with antibiotics. However, your provider might recommend some over-the-counter treatments to help relieve your symptoms.

Antihistamines, such as Claritin, or a nasal spray like Flonase can open up the airways and thin the mucus, making it easier to expel,” Kristin said about inner ear infections.

For outer ear infections, treatment is focused on keeping the ear canal clean and controlling swelling and pain. Antibiotics for this type of infection may be oral medications or ear drops.

Last Updated: December 2, 2021

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About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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