Otitis Media in Adults

Ear infections can be miserable. Middle ear infections, also known as otitis media, can affect anyone young or old. It is more common in children because of smaller Eustachian tubes that drain the ears into the back of the throat, but otitis media in adults can also happen for many different reasons. A middle ear infection can be caused by drainage from a cold, sinus infection, or even allergies. The build-up of secretions can grow bacteria inside the ear and cause swelling that blocks the Eustachian tube. This can cause unbearable pain.

Sometimes the middle ear produces fluid weeks after an ear infection, which is called, “otitis media with effusion.” As the fluid sits over time, bacteria forms and causes the infection. The fluid may not ever drain completely and causes chronic otitis media. Untreated otitis media can lead to hearing loss, balance issues, and other problems. This article will help you understand more about otitis media in adults and what to do about it.

Causes and Symptoms of Otitis Media in Adults


Otitis media is most often an inner ear infection that is sometimes caused by bacteria or viruses. These germs grow into the inner ear via the Eustachian tube from the throat. Normally, the inner ear drains into the throat when you have too much fluid from colds or allergies. In this case, the fluid goes up into the ear and up against the eardrum.

When you have an upper respiratory infection in your sinuses, throat, or nose your Eustachian tube can become swollen and blocked. Then the fluid that needs to drain out stays inside the middle ear. Bacteria love to grow in this because it is warm and moist. The longer the fluid sits, the greater the chance of infection. This is most common in adults who have sinus issues or chronic allergies.


The main symptom of otitis media in adults is ear pain. Other symptoms include:

  • Stuffy feeling in ear
  • Difficulty hearing
  • Fever
  • Headache
  • Ringing of the ears
  • Dizzy Feeling
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Leaking fluid from the ear canal

 How to Treat Otitis Media in Adults

Viral ear infections heal on their own without the need for antibiotic medications. The doctor may suggest a decongestant and pain relievers that contain anti-inflammatory medicine. Other than time, there are a few things that can be done for ear infections:

  • Pain relievers. Your doctor may suggest over-the-counter pain relievers and possibly an anti-inflammatory type like ibuprofen to help reduce the swelling along with the pain. These will also help reduce any fever, if present.
  • Warm compresses. Take a hot water bottle and fill it with warm water. You can also place a wet towel in the microwave for around 20 to 30 seconds. Be sure to check the temp before you place on your ear to avoid burns. Another trick is to fill a sock with white rice and tie it at the top. Microwave for 30 to 45 seconds and check before you place on your skin.
  • Follow-up with your doctor. If you see your doctor for ear pain and initially told it might be viral, see your doctor again if the ear pain persists or gets worse. You might have a bacterial infection that can develop after a viral infection that needs antibiotics.
  • Ask for pain reliever ear drops. There are ear drops with pain reliever in them that the doctor can prescribe. These cannot be used in cases of a ruptured ear drum, but can be used in mild to moderate cases of otitis media without rupture.

For Acute Otitis Media

Acute inner ear infections are seen more often in kids, but adults can get it too. Treatment includes:

  • Pain relievers as needed
  • Antibiotics
  • Oral or nasal steroids if the cause is due to allergies

If the above interventions do not clear the infection the doctor may choose to perform a “myringotomy,” where the doctor will surgically open the eardrum to help relieve pressure. This procedure is not always done very often anymore since antibiotics and anti-inflammatories are usually successful in clearing the infection.

For Chronic Otitis Media with Rupture

Repeated ear infections that cause the eardrum to rupture can often be treated with antibiotic ear drops. Your doctor will teach you how to drain your ear canal to make room for the drops to go in. The good thing about this treatment is once the eardrum has ruptured, the drops go all the way into the middle ear and healing tends to be much faster and less painful.

More Home Remedies for Otitis Media in Adults

Always check with your doctor before using home remedies. The following have been used for centuries to help relieve ear pain and fight infection:

  • Olive Oil – Olive oil can help loosen wax and debris in the ear canal that may harbor bacteria that can cause infection. Just lightly warm the oil and place a few drips in your ear canal. Leave in and the next day, gently clean the ear canal with a cotton swab, but be careful not to insert the swab all the way into the ear.
  • Garlic – Garlic has been used for centuries as an antibacterial and anti-inflammatory. Take some garlic juice and drop it right into your affected ear. This can help with pain relief and bring the infection under control when used 3 times daily. To make garlic juice, just boil two to three cloves in water with salt. You can also wrap the cloves after boiling and place them on your ear. To keep infection away, chew on some raw garlic daily.
  • Tea Tree Oil Mixture – Tea tree oil is another natural remedies used for centuries to heal infection. It can help ear pain right away by using one teaspoon of apple cider vinegar, mixed with three drops of tea tree oil, and two tablespoons of olive oil. Add one teaspoon of colloidal silver and warm all together. Place your affected ear up and drop some of this into your ear and stay in this position for five minutes. Then drain your ear and repeat two times a day.

What Are the Complications?

Otitis media in adults can cause complications such as:

  • Infection in the skull bone (Mastoiditis)
  • Meningitis (Infection in the spinal cord)
  • Paralysis of a facial nerve
  • Temporal abscess
  • Sinus thrombosis

If an ear infection progresses to the above complications, an untreated ear infection may need to be treated in the hospital with intravenous antibiotics. 

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