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The most common types of ear infections and how to treat them

If your ear is itchy, painful or swollen or if you have trouble hearing, you could have an ear infection. While ear infections are more common during childhood, they can still occur in adults. Loreli Garnica, M.D., a Piedmont family medicine physician, explains the most common types of ear infections, their treatment and how to prevent them in the first place.

The three types of ear infections

“The most common types of ear infections are middle ear infections (otitis media) and outer ear infections (otitis externa or swimmer’s ear),” says Dr. Garnica.

What causes ear infections?

Ear infections can be caused by a bacteria, virus or fungus, though bacterial infections are the most common.

Dr. Garnica says allergies or upper respiratory infections like the common cold can trigger an ear infection. Also, having water in your ear for extended periods can give bacteria the perfect breeding ground, leading to swimmer’s ear.

Symptoms of an ear infection

Ear infection symptoms can include:

How to prevent ear infections

Here are Dr. Garnica’s tips to reduce your chances of an ear infection:

  • Gently dry your ears with a clean towel after showering or swimming.

  • Don’t use cotton swabs or other items to clean your ears.

  • Quit smoking if you currently smoke.

  • Keep your allergy symptoms under control with prescription or over-the-counter medications.

  • Reduce your risk of a viral illness by washing your hands before eating or touching your face.

Ear infection treatment

Ear infection treatment depends on the cause of the infection.

“If the infection is caused by a virus, we can monitor the infection and treat pain or discomfort,” she says. “If this doesn’t take care of the problem or if it’s a bacterial infection, we can treat the infection with antibiotic drops or oral medications.”

When to see a health care provider for an ear infection

“If you have ear discomfort, drainage or trouble hearing and your symptoms persist for more than a day or two, see your health care provider,” says Dr. Garnica. “We can look in your ear and make a full evaluation. Left untreated, an ear infection can lead to hearing loss or rupture of the eardrum.”

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