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What Causes Ear Infections?

Ear infections are often the bane of parents' lives everywhere. These bacterial infections plague adults and children alike, so what causes them, and what do you need to do when the telltale symptoms arise?

parent taking childs temperature

Ear infections are very common, but that doesn’t make them any less uncomfortable or worrisome when they arise. As the saying goes, knowledge is power, so let’s cover what commonly causes ear infections, what to watch for, and when you should be concerned.

Common Ear Infection Causes

Like many illnesses, the primary cause of an ear infection can be either bacterial or viral. That’s why kids so often develop them alongside other illnesses — once a virus is alive in your system, there is a chance it can trigger an ear infection as well.

Cold or Flu

Cold and flu season brings many bacterial and viral infections, creating the ideal environment for ear infections to develop. That’s why ear infections this time of year are so common - they come with the territory.

Strep Throat

If you’ve ever experienced a sore throat that seems to irritate your ears as well, you’re not alone. Strep throat is caused by a group of bacteria whose hallmark symptoms include a quick onset of a very sore throat. However, the main group of bacteria that cause strep throat, streptococcus pneumoniae, are also the leading cause of ear infections alongside another group of bacteria known as haemophilius influenzae.


Safely cleaning your ears regularly is important to prevent ear infection from this particular cause, though it won’t stop every blockage-induced case of ear infection. In fact, the most common blockage that leads to ear infection is a blockage of the eustachian tubes, which are small tubes that run from your ears directly to the back of your throat. For that reason, people who experience moderate to severe post nasal drip are often at higher risk for ear infection as well. 

Fluid Trapped in Ear

Fluid trapped in the ear from swimming in a pool, lake, or other body of water can also breed the right mix of bacteria to cause an infection. If you have a feeling of fluid trapped in your ear that does not dissipate after a few hours, it’s always best to give your primary care provider a call.

What to Watch for with Ear Infections in Children

Ear infections are more common in infants, toddlers, and children, so knowing what to look for when your little ones might not be able to fully explain what they are experiencing themselves is important.

These symptoms are common signs of an ear infection in children, and don’t require much worry, though it is always recommended to see a doctor when any ear infection arises:

  • Fever
  • Irritability
  • Losing balance
  • Rubbing or pulling at ear
  • Not reacting to sounds

However, if their fever is higher than 102 degrees Fahrenheit or they experience intense ear pain, seek emergency medical attention immediately

Ear Infection Treatment

“While most ear infections are mild and easily managed, severe ear infections can lead to permanent hearing loss if not addressed appropriately and in a timely manner,” Dr. Michael Sinklier, DO in Family Medicine at The Iowa Clinic said.

Commonly, ear infections last around three days, but can persist for up to a week and sometimes more. If an ear infection lasts longer than a week, Dr. Sinklier recommends seeking medical attention to determine an appropriate course of action.

Ear infections are typically treated with a combination of over the counter and prescription medicines, but depending on the severity or if you or your child experience ear infections with increasing frequency, surgical intervention may be the best option for long-term relief.

For frequent ear infection sufferers, the best intervention is sometimes putting tubes in the ears. If your child has been experiencing ear infections more often, even as they get older, ear tubes may be the right solution.

As always, consult with your doctor or a specialist if you or your child experience frequent or particularly painful ear infections.

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