What Are the Symptoms of an Ear Infection in Adults?

Reviewed on 1/25/2022
Illustration of eustachian tubes in the ear canal
Symptoms of an ear infection in adults include ear pain, discharge from the ear (otorrhea), itching in the ear, hearing loss, fullness in the ear, ringing in the ear (tinnitus), spinning sensation (vertigo), nausea, vomiting, and fever.

There are different types of ear infections, based on where in the ear the infection occurs. 

Symptoms of an ear infection may also occur following respiratory infections such as the common cold, flu, or COVID-19.

Symptoms of an ear infection in adults include:

What Causes an Ear Infection in Adults?

Ear infections in the outer canal (otitis externa, or “swimmer’s ear”) are caused by:

  • Bacterial or fungal overgrowth in the ear canal that results from moisture mixing with the earwax and debris in the ear canal
  • Moisture can enter the ear canal from swimming, diving, or even bathing 
  • Overuse of cotton swabs in the ear canal 

Ear infections in the middle ear (otitis media) are caused by:

  • Bacteria
    • Common bacterial causes of middle ear infections are Streptococcus pneumoniae (also called pneumococcus), Haemophilus influenzae, and Moraxella catarrhalis
  • Viruses
    • Common viral causes of middle ear infections are respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and flu (influenza) virus
  • Fluid from the sinuses can back up through the Eustachian tubes that connect the throat to the middle ear, such as when the sinuses or throat are inflamed from infection (from a cold, sinusitis, or an allergy attack) 
    • The backed-up fluid becomes trapped in the middle ear, which is a good breeding ground for bacteria and viruses

How Is an Ear Infection in Adults Diagnosed?

Ear infections are diagnosed with a physical exam of the ear in which a doctor uses an otoscope (an instrument that is a light with a cone at the tip to visualize inside the ear canal) to check for inflammation in the ear canal. 

Tympanometry may also be performed to check for changes in pressure in the middle ear. 

What Is the Treatment for an Ear Infection in Adults?

Medications used to treat ear infection include: 

In cases of a middle ear infection, a doctor may recommend waiting to see if antibiotics are needed. Home treatments to relieve the symptoms of an earache include: 

  • Rest
  • Drink plenty of fluids
  • Warm compresses applied to the area to help soothe pain
  • Decongestants 
  • Over-the-counter pain medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol)
  • Anti-allergy medications 
  • Consult your doctor before using over-the-counter pain ear drops 


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Reviewed on 1/25/2022
Image Source: iStock Images