Are Ear Infections Contagious?

A baby crying with agony of earache is something every parent familiar with. Otitis media refers to the inflammation of middle ear (the part of ear behind the ear drum) and is commonly known as an ear infection.Ear infections are extremely common among children in the U.S. and nearly 50% of babies get an ear infection before their first birthday; and by the time they turn 3, nearly all have had an episode of ear infection. So is this condition contagious?

Are Ear Infections Contagious?

Ear infections are generally preceded by respiratory tract infections, and though the virus causing respiratory tract infections is highly contagious, an ear infection is NOT contagious itself. The virus might infect a group of children resulting in cold in all of them, but only few who are otitis-prone will develop an ear infection.

Respiratory viruses are very contagious and spread rapidly from person to person by either droplets or direct contact. A kid infected with this virus is more likely to develop an ear infection because the delicate balance between the child’s immunity and normal bacteria is disturbed. These bacteria are normally found in the body and are kept in check by the body’s defence mechanism. When this defence system is down, or the Eustachian tube is blocked, these bacteria are likely to infect the middle ear. Usually the ear infection develops a few days after the cold begins, and by that time the child is generally no longer contagious.

Signs and Symptoms of Ear Infections in Children

The most common symptoms of an ear infection are fever, irritability and pain. The kid can become more cranky or fussy than usual, there can be disturbed sleep and they might refuse to eat or lie flat due to pain. Since it is associated with the common cold, there can be runny nose or cough as well. The nasal discharge is usually clear in the beginning, turning into yellow or green with progression of the infection.

Middle ear is a closed space and during infection a significant amount of pus accumulates there. This exerts a lot of pressure on the ear drum and also reduces its ability to vibrate, resulting in excruciating pain and temporary hearing loss. In case of severe infection there can be a lot of pus and the pressure on the ear drum can lead to its rupture, resulting in ear discharge. Once the ear drum ruptures and the pus is drained, the pain gets better. These holes don’t need any intervention and normally heal without any complication.

When to See a Doctor

Apart from knowing the answer to “Are ear infections contagious?” you should also be aware that the signs and symptoms of ear infection in children are associated with a lot of other conditions as well, so it is very important to get early diagnosis for appropriate treatment. The right thing to do is to contact the doctor if:

  • The child is symptomatic for more than 24 hours
  • Severe ear pain
  • Sleeplessness or irritability, especially after a bout of common cold
  • Any discharge from the ear, which can be clear fluid, purulent or blood stained

How to Deal With Ear Infections in Children

Children with ear infection generally start to get better in a couple of days without requiring any antibiotics. The treatment depends on the severity of symptoms, age and other factors.

Wait-and-See Approach

Are ear infections contagious? The answer is no. Normally the infections clear off in a couple of weeks without any treatment, although some kids do need antibiotics due to severity of symptoms. The latest guidelines from The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend a wait-and-see approach for children with mild infection and low grade fever. If the fever is more than 102°F (39°C) or the symptoms are severe and last for a couple of days, a doctor must be consulted.

Pain Management

Ear infections are notoriously painful. Pain medicines such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen are helpful and can be given. The instructions on the label regarding dosage and administration must be followed. Aspirin should be avoided in children and teenagers and is always better to talk to the doctor before giving any medicine to children. Placing a warm washcloth on the ear can ease the pain but it should not be too hot.


Antibiotics are associated with a lot of side effects and are reserved and prescribed for severe infections. These are generally recommended when the child is having high grade feverand/or pain that does not get better in a couple of days. Antibiotics, if given, must be continued for the advised duration which is generally a week. They should not be discontinued after symptoms get better to avoid recurrent infections and developing resistance against treatment.

Preventing Ear Infections in Children

Are ear infections contagious? The answer is no. In addition, the following simple measures can be observed to minimize the risk of ear infection in children:

  1. Breastfeeding and feed the baby in upright position: Breastfeeding increases immunity and strengthens the defense mechanism of the child, resulting in fewer chances of getting an infection. It is very important to feed the baby in the right posture.When they are fed lying down, milk can irritate the Eustachian tubes and this can lead to an ear infection.
  2. Daycare setting: Kids who go to over-crowded day care centers are exposed to more germs and are more likely to catch an infection. The best thing to avoid infections is to choose a place with fewer kids and better environment.
  3. Control allergies: Allergies can play a role in recurrent infections.It is better to consult your doctor to rule out the possibility of allergies if your child is getting recurrent episodes of runny nose.
  4. Keep the nose clear: When babies develop colds and have a runny nose, it is very important to keep the nose clear for easy breathing. This can be done by using saline nasal drops, steam or gentle suctioning.
  5. Avoid cigarette smoke exposure: Cigarette smoke irritates the nasal passages and can lead to a lot of problems.
  6. Echinacea: This herb can safely be used to boost immunity and avoid infections in children.
  7. Chiropractic care: Eustachian tube blockage causes ear infection and certain chiropractic adjustments can keep them open, leading to better drainage and fewer chances of infection.
  8. Healthy eating: Fresh fruits and vegetable contain a lot of nutrients and are well known to increase immunity. They should be introduced early into your child’s diet.
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