Ear Infection in Adults

3 Types of Ear Infections and How to Treat Them

Ear infection treatment for adults includes medications that help clear up the infection or ease symptoms such as pain, dizziness, and nausea. 

Depending on the cause and location of the ear infection, treatment options include:

  • Pain relievers like Motrin (ibuprofen) or Tylenol (acetaminophen)
  • Allergy medications, such as Benadryl (diphenhydramine)
  • Antibiotics
  • Antivirals
  • Steroids
  • Antinausea medications

Some are available in oral form, ear drops, or both.

This article will go over ear infection treatment in adults, including when you should see a healthcare provider for your symptoms instead of trying to manage them at home.

A person in an indoor pool with googles and a swim cap (Ear Infections)

Verywell / Ellen Lindner

How Do Adults Get Ear Infections?

Ear infections in adults happen for the same reasons that kids get them. It’s usually because there is fluid buildup in the ear that is causing blockages and inflammation. 

The ear is divided into the outer ear, middle ear, and inner ear. An ear infection can occur in any of these areas; however, bacterial infections of the inner ear are very rare.

Bacteria, viruses, and fungi can cause infections in the ear and are often brought on by an illness, such as a cold or allergies.

Most ear infections do not require treatment and will clear up within a week or two. 

When treatment (or a combination of treatments) is needed for an adult ear infection, the type that’s chosen will depend on the type of infection someone has.

Outer Ear Infections

Outer ear infections are sometimes called swimmer's ear, or otitis externa. 

This type of ear infection is in the ear canal, the portion of the ear that leads from the outside and stops at the eardrum. The opening of this part of the ear is external and visible.

The reason outer ear infections are called swimmer's ear is that they can be caused by swimming or bathing in contaminated water.

However, these activities are not the only ways to get an outer ear infection. Bacteria, viruses, or fungi can get into the ear in other ways, such as through broken skin. An infection happens because when they get into a moist environment, they grow better.

The symptoms of an outer ear infection in adults can include:

  • Pain in the ear
  • Redness and irritation inside the ear canal
  • Itchy ear canal
  • Flaky or peeling skin

More severe outer ear infections can lead to swelling of the ear canal, which can cause muffled hearing, a fever, or ear drainage that looks like there is pus in it.

Your provider can diagnose an outer ear infection by looking at your ear canal with a special tool with a light on the end that makes it easy to see inside the ear (otoscope).

Preventing Outer Ear Infections

The best way to prevent outer ear infections is to keep your ears as clean and dry as possible. 

Never put objects into your ear canal (like a cotton swab), and gently dry your ears after swimming or bathing. You can do this by tipping your head to the side and allowing the water to run out.

Outer Ear Infection OTC Treatments

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain medications, including Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen) and Tylenol (acetaminophen), can be used to ease the pain from an outer ear infection. You can also use a warm compress. 

Specific ear drops can be used to treat swimmer's ear, including Debrox swimmer's ear drops, Auro Dri ear drops, and Swim EAR drops.

There are various at-home remedies recommended for swimmer's ear, including rubbing alcohol, vinegar, or baby oil. However, you should ask your healthcare provider before using any of these methods for swimmer's ear.

Outer Ear Infection Prescription Medications

Antibiotic ear drops are often prescribed to treat outer ear infections

Commonly prescribed ear drops like Ciprodex (ciprofloxacin and dexamethasone), combine an antibiotic and a steroid medication to help with inflammation.

These ear drops should be used exactly as prescribed by your provider and for as long as they tell you to use them.

Oral antibiotics are not usually needed for outer ear infections. 

If you are prescribed oral antibiotics, make sure you take them exactly how your provider tells you to. Do not stop taking the medication even if you start feeling better. You need to finish all the medication to make sure the infection is treated. 

Possible Complications of Outer Ear Infections

Complications of outer ear infections in adults are rare, but some people are at a higher risk for problems.

For example, people with impaired immune systems, diabetes, or who are undergoing cancer treatments that make it hard for the body to fight off an infection might be more likely to have ear infection complications.

If they're not treated, outer ear infections can lead to a condition called malignant otitis externa. If this happens, the infection spreads to nearby tissues and bones and causes serious damage.

Middle Ear Infections

Adults can also get middle ear infections. The middle ear is inside the ear. It starts behind the eardrum and goes to the oval window (the area between the middle ear and inner ear). It has three tiny bones, called the ossicles, in it that are necessary for hearing.

The auditory tube (Eustachian tube) runs from the middle ear to the throat. It ventilates and equalizes the pressure in the middle ear. Fluid from the middle ear space drains into the throat and is usually swallowed.

Types of Middle Ear Infections

Middle ear infections are called otitis media. When otitis media happens along with fluid in the middle ear, it’s called serous otitis media, or otitis media with effusion.

Middle ear infections often come on after a cold virus or upper respiratory infection. They are also more common in people who have allergies or enlarged adenoids (tissue in the throat and nasal cavity), which can get in the way of the auditory tube doing its job.

Bacteria, viruses, or fungi often get in through the auditory tube, which gets swollen and blocked with mucus. This prevents drainage and ventilation of the middle ear.

The main symptoms of middle ear infections in adults include:

  • Ear pain (which can be worse in the morning or cause trouble sleeping)
  • Ear drainage
  • Trouble hearing
  • Fever

A healthcare provider can diagnose a middle ear infection based on your symptoms and an exam.

Middle Ear Infection OTC Treatments

Middle ear infections usually resolve themselves, so treatment is more for symptoms and pain relief.

You can take OTC pain relievers, such as ibuprofen and acetaminophen, to ease the pain of a middle ear infection. These medications also help if you have a fever.

Sometimes using a warm compress and keeping your upper body elevated can help the auditory tube drain and alleviate the pain of a middle ear infection.

Middle Ear Infection Prescription Medications

Antibiotics are only effective for treating a middle ear infection that is caused by bacteria.

However, it's not always possible to identify the cause—whether bacterial or viral—of a middle ear infection. 

Your healthcare provider may try prescribing you an antibiotic to see if it helps or just wait to see if the infection gets better on its own.

Possible Complications of Middle Ear Infections

Some people get chronic or recurring middle ear infections. 

While rare, several complications from persistent or untreated middle ear infections include:

  • Mastoiditis (a condition in which the infection spreads to the mastoid bone behind the ear)
  • Cholesteatoma (a rare condition associated with middle ear infections that causes the skin cells in the middle ear to grow abnormally)
  • Inner ear infections (labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis, which sometimes occur from untreated middle ear infections)
  • Meningitis (an infection of the meninges, the protective space filled with cerebral spinal fluid that cushions the brain and spinal cord)
  • Facial paralysis (a rare condition in which the facial nerves are compressed)

Inner Ear Infections

An inner ear infection is another kind of ear infection adults can get. The inner ear is next to the middle ear in the temporal bone of the skull. The inner ear has the semicircular canals in it, which your body needs for balance and equilibrium.

Inner ear infections are much more likely to be caused by a virus than a bacterial infection. They are less common than outer ear infections or middle ear infections.

The most common inner ear infections are labyrinthitis or vestibular neuritis, which are slightly different conditions.

Labyrinthitis affects a system of fluid-filled sacs that helps you hear and gives you a sense of balance (labyrinth). Labyrinthitis can cause hearing changes and dizziness (vertigo).

Vestibular neuritis is an inner ear infection that affects the vestibular nerve. It usually causes dizziness and balance issues but no hearing changes.

There is no specific diagnostic test for an inner ear infection, so misdiagnosis or delayed diagnosis is common.

Inner Ear Infection OTC Treatments

Benadryl (diphenhydramine) and Antivert (meclizine) are two OTC medications that can be used to treat the dizziness and nausea caused by an inner ear infection.

While OTC medications can alleviate the symptoms of an inner ear infection, they do not treat the infection itself.

Inner Ear Infection Prescription Medications

Several prescription medications can be used to treat or manage the symptoms of an inner ear infection, such as:

  • Antinausea medications to help control nausea symptoms
  • Steroid medications, such as prednisone, to reduce inflammation
  • Antibiotics or antiviral medications to treat the infection itself

Possible Complications of Inner Ear Infections

Excessive nausea and vomiting can lead to hospitalization and the need for intravenous (IV) fluids in people with inner ear infections.

Permanent hearing loss or chronic issues with balance and dizziness (vestibular problems) are also possible complications of an inner ear infection.

When to See a Provider

A typical ear infection starts to improve in a couple of days and will clear up in two weeks or less.

However, some ear infections won’t get better on their own and will need medical treatment. 

Call your healthcare provider if you have:

  • Fever
  • Symptoms that do not get better or get worse over two or three days
  • Severe pain that resolves suddenly
  • Headache or dizziness
  • Fluid or blood draining from your ear
  • Swelling behind your ear
  • Weakness in your facial muscles 

Alternative Treatments

If you think you have an ear infection, you should see your provider to get diagnosed and treated. 

If you’re waiting for an appointment or giving a prescription treatment time to work, there are some things you might be able to try on your own at home to help with ear infection symptoms.

For example, research has suggested that garlic and garlic extract might help with ear infections—however, these substances are not as effective as antibiotics or antifungals for infections caused by bacteria or yeast.

You can either add some garlic to your cooking or use it 

You can try smashing some fresh garlic and letting it sit for 10 minutes (which helps ensure you get the most of a substance in garlic called allicin) before using it. 


Having an ear infection as an adult can be painful and interfere with your ability to function.

Some ear infections will clear up on their own, but others need treatment. You should talk to your provider if you think you have an ear infection. They can figure out what kind you have and recommend the best treatment (or combination of treatments) to help cure the infection and relieve your symptoms. 

Frequently Asked Questions

  • How do you know if an ear infection is bacterial or viral?

    It is not always possible to identify the exact cause of an ear infection. However, if ear drainage is present, it is possible a sample of the drainage can be sent to a laboratory for testing and the germ may be identified.

  • What is the treatment for ear infections in adults?

    OTC pain relievers are often effective at alleviating the pain of an ear infection. Heating pads can also be helpful but you need to keep an eye on the temperature to make sure you don’t burn yourself. For middle ear infections, elevating your upper body can help relieve the pressure in your ear. If your symptoms are not getting better with home remedies you should talk to your provider. You may need a prescription like an antibiotic or antifungal medication to treat the infection.

  • Will an ear infection clear up without antibiotics?

    Many ear infections will clear up without antibiotics. If your symptoms are mild or your healthcare provider suspects a virus, they may choose not to prescribe antibiotics but rather monitor the infection to see if it gets better on its own.

10 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  2. Stanford Healthcare. Treatment for swimmer's ear.

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  6. NHS Inform. Middle ear infection (otitis media).

  7. McGovern Medical School. Ear Anatomy - Inner Ear.

  8. Johns Hopkins Medicine. Labyrinthitis and vestibular neuritis.

  9. Mukhitdinov A, Olimov N, Olimova S. Comparative clinical study of the effectiveness of MEKRITEN in patients with chronic suppurative otitis. Turk J Pharm Sci. 2018 Aug;15(2):184-189. doi: 10.4274/tjps.52824. Epub 2018 Jul 17. PMID: 32454659; PMCID: PMC7228021.

  10. Uzun L, Dal T, Kalcıoğlu MT, Yürek M, Açıkgöz ZC, Durmaz R. Antimicrobial activity of garlic derivatives on common causative microorganisms of the external ear canal and chronic middle ear infections. Turk Arch Otorhinolaryngol. 2019 Dec;57(4):161-165. doi: 10.5152/tao.2019.4413. Epub 2019 Dec 1. PMID: 32128511; PMCID: PMC7032553.

By Kristin Hayes, RN
Kristin Hayes, RN, is a registered nurse specializing in ear, nose, and throat disorders for both adults and children.