7 Common Causes of Ear Infections

A recent yawn, laugh or sneeze brought attention to a strange pain in your ear. After a quick exam, you found the pain resonating from inside your ear instead of an external piercing or bruise. This pain is likely a sign of an ear infection, but what might have caused it?

Read about these seven common causes of ear infections to see if any of them might have caused your aches and pains. They’re common in kids and still happen in adults. Learn more about what starts an ear infection, so you know when to seek help and what to avoid in the future.

1. A Head Cold

Getting a head cold is annoying, but not always something to be concerned about. If you get plenty of rest and drink lots of fluids, your stuffy nose will go away in a matter of days. While your body’s still fighting the virus, you might end your cold with an ear infection instead.

Sometimes a cold virus will cause fluid buildup in your ear, harboring bacteria that result in swelling and redness. A doctor can examine your ear and find the right antibiotic to solve your pain.

2. Swimmer’s Ear

Did you recently go swimming or get water in your ear from the shower? When water stays in your ear canal for a prolonged period, it becomes a warm, dark home for bacteria. Pool water already has germs in it as well, so you’re most likely to get an infection if you can’t get it out of your ear.

You can tell if you developed this outer ear canal infection by wiggling your ear. If you don’t feel any pain, it’s likely a different kind of infection deeper in your ear canal.

3. The Seasonal Flu

Your recent bout with the seasonal flu could have caused your latest ear infection. Even if you only had the sniffles for a little bit, those germs in your nose can climb up the eustachian tube and make a new home in your middle ear.

The flu might have already sent you to the doctor’s office, so you could feel hesitant to go again for your ear. Your insurance might not cover general checkups, making each trip a strain on your budget. It’s still worth noting that these infections should not go untreated. If left on their own, they could lead to meningitis and other complications, like hearing loss or facial paralysis.

4. Throat Infections

Most people who are familiar with strep throat have dealt with it numerous times during their lives. Even if you’ve had it multiple times and never experienced an ear infection, it doesn’t rule out this complication. Strep throat is an invasive infection because the bacteria are so active.

The bacteria can enter the eustachian tube in either or both ears. It swells in the throat, which connects to this tube. Always mention any ear pain to your doctor when you see them about your potential case of strep throat.

5. Sinus Infections

During a sinus infection, the interior walls of tissue become inflamed. It leads to swelling, which can reach your inner ear. The intense swelling traps fluid behind the eardrum that would normally drain. Viruses and bacteria thrive in this environment, leading to increased pressure and pain in your ear.

There’s a direct connection between the ears and the sinuses, which is why adults can get an ear infection after a sinus issue. Even though your eustachian tubes have grown to maturity, they can still have a shape or acute swelling that creates infections well into adulthood.

6. Seasonal Allergies

Seasonal allergies are an annoyance, but they’re easily treatable with over-the-counter medication and lifestyle changes. If you noticed your allergies flaring up recently, they could have played a role in your ear infection.

Your body releases histamines when it encounters allergens to get rid of them faster. It stimulates cellular inflammation because histamines increase blood flow to the areas with allergens. It should repair any damage caused by your allergies, but that inflammation can also backfire.

Sinus or throat inflammation will block that critical ear drainage you need to reduce bacteria in your eustachian tubes. It’s not unheard of to get an ear infection because your seasonal allergies have become more intense.

7. Cotton Swabs

People often use cotton swabs to clear wax out of their ears. It might feel good and help you feel cleaner, but it’s not ideal for your health. Cotton swabs catch some ear wax, but push most of it deeper against the eardrum. Wax buildup keeps bacteria in your ear because it can’t exit the ear naturally. 

Using cotton swabs every day can cause an ear infection and potentially something worse. One man who cleaned with cotton swabs developed a brain infection because the bacteria in his ear migrated to his skull.

It’s in your best interest to avoid sticking cotton swabs inside your ear and get a doctor’s opinion on any current pain or pressure you’re experiencing.

Always Get Checked Out

Now that you know seven common causes of ear infections, consider if they have recently happened in your life. Schedule a checkup with your doctor so they can examine your ear pain and determine a treatment plan to take care of your infection.