Ear infections are anything but pleasant, so it’s only natural to wonder whether they are contagious. In this guide, we give you everything you need to know about ear infections, including how they occur and whether they can be passed on.
Are Ear Infections Contagious?
While ear infections are not contagious, the viral and bacterial infections that cause them are. So, if they aren’t contagious, then how do you get an ear infection in the first place?
To help you better understand how infections affect the ear, let’s take a closer look at the anatomy of the ear.
The human ear comprises three primary cavities: the inner ear, the middle ear, and the outer ear. Each of which has their own function and form, thus presenting infections in their own way.
The Outer Ear
The outer ear consists of the visible portion on the side of the head, called the pinna, and the external auditory canal or ear canal. The pinna is made of soft tissue and cartilage and acts as a funnel by collecting sound, amplifying it, and directing it into the ear canal, which then propels it to the eardrum.
The auditory or ear canal – a 2 to 3 cm tube – is exposed to the outside world and uses earwax to protect itself from foreign particles and microorganisms.
The Middle Ear
The middle ear is an air-filled space that sits behind the eardrum and also consists of three tiny bones called ossicles, the round window, the oval window, and the Eustachian tube. The ossicles are further broken down into malleus or hammer, the incus or anvil, and the stapes or stirrup. When sound vibrations reach the eardrum, the ossicles vibrate, causing the fluid in the inner ear to vibrate.
The Eustachian tube, a narrow tube that runs from each middle ear to the upper part of the throat, connects the middle ear to the upper respiratory tract. They open and close at the throat to:
- Provide fresh air to the middle ear space
- Equalize air pressure in the ear – the reason for the popping sound your ears make sometimes
- Drain normal secretions and debris from the middle ear
The Inner Ear
The inner consists of three parts:
- Vestibule: the central inner ear cavity
- Cochlea: the hearing organ
- Semicircular Canals: part of the balance system
The cochlea, comprised of three smaller components, is filled with fluid and small hair-like nerve cells that interpret vibrations and send electrical impulses to the auditory nerve, thus allowing us to hear.
Are Middle Ear Infections Contagious?
Middle ear infections or acute otitis media are usually caused by clogged Eustachian tubes. This means the middle ear cannot properly drain fluids, making it a suitable environment for invasive bacteria to multiply.
So, are middle ear infections contagious? No. Middle ear infections cannot be transmitted; however, viral infections and bacteria that could trigger the infection are contagious.
Ear infections are more common in children since the Eustachian tubes are more narrow and less developed in young children and infants.
Causes of Eustachian Tube Blockages
- Viral infections: Common colds and flu are the biggest triggers, but other upper respiratory infections can also cause the Eustachian tubes to swell.
- Allergies: Pollen, food, or animal dander allergies may obstruct the Eustachian tubes. In some instances, exposure to smoke, fumes, and various airborne toxins may cause the Eustachian tube to swell, leading to ear infections.
- Bacteria: Only cause ear infections in rare circumstances when your immune system is compromised, typically after a viral infection or allergic reaction. This can damage the middle ear and could trigger high fevers and hearing loss. Common ear infection-causing bacteria are contagious and could result in an ear infection if transmitted from one person to another.
Are Outer Ear Infections Contagious?
Outer ear infections, or acute otitis externa, are caused by several factors, and luckily none of them are contagious.
The main risk factor for developing an outer ear infection is irritation to the ear canal, which happens when debris or water gets inside the ear canal. Ear infections of this kind are typically referred to as “swimmer’s ear” due to them often occurring after swimming. So naturally, swimming in dirty water could result in an outer ear infection.
While bacteria are the most probable culprit of an outer ear infection, fungal infections and viral infections are possible causes too.
Causes of Outer Ear Infections
- Too much moisture in the ear: Bacteria thrive in water, and bacterial infections are more likely to occur when excess water stays behind in your ear from swimming, showering, sweating, or even excessively humid weather.
- Irritations to the ear canal: The skin inside the ear canal is extremely sensitive, and minor scratches or abrasions can irritate or damage it, making it more likely for bacteria to breed. This is also why “cleaning” earwax out of your ear with cotton swabs or hairpins is not recommended. Besides, cotton swabs will probably push earwax further into the ear canal, causing blockage and reduced hearing. Fingers, headphones, and hearing aids are other potential irritations and causes of ear infections.
- Sensitivity reactions: External objects like jewelry and hairspray may also irritate the ear canal.
Are Inner Ear Infections Contagious?
The inner ear is responsible for receiving vibrations from the middle ear and transmitting them to the brain. In addition, the inner ear accounts for the body’s balance and sense of equilibrium. While it is less accessible to foreign microbes in comparison to the middle and outer ear, inner ear infections can still occur.
Inner ear infections result in a condition called labyrinthitis, which is the swelling and irritation of the inner ear. Symptoms include hearing loss, dizziness, nausea or vomiting, vertigo, and tinnitus (ringing in the ear).
Are inner ear infections contagious? No, but as with middle ear infections, the viral or bacterial pathogens causing the infection are contagious. The most common cause of inner ear infections are viruses, but bacterial infections in the middle ear can spread to the inner ear.
Causes of Inner Ear Infections
- Cold or flu viruses: The biggest causes of ear infections in the inner ear. These viruses can spread from the respiratory system to the middle ear and then into the inner ear.
- Less common viruses: Measles, herpes, mumps, and glandular fever.
- Complications of a middle ear infection: The most common cause of bacterial infections in the inner ear is when a middle ear infection spreads into the inner ear.
- Injury: An injury to your head or ear that leaves your body at risk to unwanted bacteria.
Contact a Doctor for Ear Infections
You should contact a doctor if you are experiencing symptoms of an ear infection that last longer than a day or two. While ear infections may clear up on their own, you should seek medical attention if the pain worsens or persists. You should consult with a doctor as soon as possible if you have fluid draining from your ear or if your hearing is impaired.
With proper treatment, ear infections generally resolve with no issues. But if ignored, and in rare cases, an ear infection can lead to serious health complications, such as:
- Hearing loss
- Eardrum perforation
- Facial nerve paralysis
- Mastoiditis: a rare inflammation of a bone that is adjacent to the ear
- Meniere’s disease: a condition that manifests as symptoms of vertigo, hearing loss, pressure in the ears and ringing in the ears
Don’t let your ear infection worsen. Instead, get the proper treatment and medical attention you deserve with our professional doctors. Download our app, find a doctor near you, and have a consultation from the comfort of your own home.