What Does an Ear Infection Feel Like in Adults?

Ear infections are typically considered childhood maladies, but up to 20% of adults develop ear infections, which can affect the outer, middle, or inner ear. Adult ear infections often resolve on their own, but having an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist diagnose and treat the condition can relieve symptoms and rule out more serious concerns.

What Are the Symptoms of Ear Infections?

Adult ear infection symptoms often depend on the type of infection. Outer and middle ear infections are more common than inner ear infections. An outer ear infection is often called “swimmer’s ear” because it typically occurs when moisture remains in the ear. An outer ear infection may involve these symptoms:

  • Itching in your ear canal
  • Slight redness inside your ear
  • Mild discomfort that’s made worse by pulling on your outer ear (pinna or auricle) or pushing on the little “bump” in front of your ear (tragus)
  • Some drainage of clear, odorless fluid

These symptoms can worsen without treatment, causing increased pain, fever, swelling, and decreased hearing.

Pain in one or both ears, muffled hearing, drainage, and a sore throat, sometimes accompanied by a fever, are usually symptoms of middle ear infections.

Inner ear infections, often caused by a virus, bring symptoms such as vertigo, dizziness, vomiting, and balance problems.

What Does an Ear Infection Feel Like?

One of the first indications that you may have an outer ear infection is the feeling that there’s water trapped in the ear. If you’re experiencing that sensation, turn your head to the side and gently shake it to see if water drains from the ear. If the feeling persists, you can try using over-the-counter drops to dry the ears.

Do not stick a cotton swab into the ear. Cotton swabs, such as Q-tips®, push earwax deeper into the ear canal, trapping water or moisture that can result in an infection. Instead, apply a tissue or soft, thin cloth to your finger and gently wipe around the ear entrance.

Is There a Difference Between Childhood and Adult Ear Infections?

Woman and her daughter (models) outside having a good time.

The underlying causes are typically different. Children get more ear infections because their eustachian tubes are shorter and more horizontal than adults, making it more likely that they’ll get blocked. Additionally, a child’s adenoids take up more space in the throat than adults’ adenoids and can interfere with the opening of the tubes.

A middle ear infection develops when swelling occurs in one or both eustachian tubes. This fills the tube with pus or infected fluid, which pushes on the eardrum. This can be quite painful. The eustachian tubes connect the middle ear to the back of the throat and act as release valves to equalize pressure within the middle ear. If that process is impeded, infections can develop.

Adults usually get ear infections when their nasal cavities or throats become inflamed by a sinus infection, strep throat, a cold, or seasonal allergies. Smokers also have a higher risk of developing ear infections, and second-hand smoke can also cause them.

How Are Adult Ear Infections Treated?

Treating adults diagnosed with ear infections is similar to how we treat children. Unless you’re experiencing severe symptoms or have waited several days to schedule an appointment after the onset of symptoms, we usually recommend applying a warm compress to the infected ear, taking medication to relieve discomfort, and using over-the-counter ear drops. Most infections improve within a couple of days and resolve on their own within a week or 2.

Other treatments include:

  • Antibiotics: Our physicians prescribe antibiotics if you have a bacterial infection or if your symptoms are severe. These may be antibiotic ear drops or oral antibiotics for severe infections.
  • Ear tubes: Chronic ear infections may require placing small tubes in the eardrum to keep the middle ear aerated and to prevent fluid from accumulating. Adults getting ear tubes can undergo the procedure with a local anesthetic.
  • Adenoidectomy: Overly large or chronically infected adenoids may cause adult ear infections. If that’s the case, a physician performs a minor surgical procedure that removes the adenoids.

If you get ear tubes, it’s best to use ear plugs if you go swimming to keep water out of the devices.

Reducing the Chance of Ear Infections

You can lower the risk of getting ear infections by not using cotton swabs, not smoking, and carefully drying your ears after swimming or showering. Also, if you have diabetes, it’s important to keep your blood sugar under control because ear infections are more difficult to treat for people with diabetes.

At ACENT, our doctors are all board-certified, and each brings their own special interests and focused training to our team. If you’re looking in the Anchorage area for an ENT doctor to treat ear infections, you can request a consultation using the online form or call us at (907) 279-8800 to schedule an appointment with one of our physicians.