Do ear infections in an adult require a trip to a doctor?
November 9, 2007 3:24 AM   Subscribe

Has anyone had experience with ear infections going away on their own or with home treatment? Or do they always require a trip to the doctor and some antibiotics?

I know you're not a doctor or not my doctor. I'm just trying to decide if I have to try & get into my doctor's today (which will require going to their walk-in clinic, which will require sitting in a waiting room for 2.5+ hours) or if there is anything I can do at home (rest, Tylenol, decongestants, etc) that might encourage it to go away on its own.

I don't really feel sick overall, which usually happens when I get an ear infection. Basically my ear canal started hurting and sort of almost itching in a painful way yesterday and has gotten worse overnight. It doesn't feel like a usual ear infection - it seems more focused in the outer canal than a deep-inside ache. I also don't feel congested which always happens when I get an ear infection.

Could this be related to getting the flu shot yesterday?

If I wait it out until Monday to see if I feel better, what can I do in the meantime to help it? Otherwise, if you think I should just suck it up and go to the doctor, I can accept that. I just tend to be a hypochondriac so I have trouble deciding when it's actually necessary.
posted by tastybrains to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I don't go, but I'm a very, very bad person. Actually what I usually do for an outer ear infection is put some rubbing alcohol and/or witch hazel and/or hydrogen peroxide on a q-tip and swish it around in my ear gently--this has potential to hurt like hell so be careful. And then avoid water for a few days, including blow drying my ear on the barely warm setting after a shower.

But go to the doctor. Do as I say, not as I do.
posted by anaelith at 3:34 AM on November 9, 2007

I don't think it will hurt you to wait till Monday, but I would go if it doesn't clear up. I've had very similar symptoms to you in the past and I didn't go for a long time and ended up doing dumb things with q tips.

When I finally went to the doctor, he gave me some drops and it cleared up in a couple of days.
posted by crocomancer at 3:40 AM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: Hard to say - I always go to the doctor right away because ear infections make me really miserable, and usually they load me up with antibiotics right away. But the last time, I had a different doctor than usual, who said that if there's no clear sign that it's bacterial, he prefers to try a week or so of painkillers and decongestants before moving on to antibiotics if they're still needed. So I wouldn't think it would do any major harm to wait it out for a few days and see if it's something viral you can kick yourself.

He wanted me to alternate Tylenol and Advil, and take the real behind-the-counter type of Sudafed as well, plus try lying down with the infected ear on a heating pad. You might try that over the weekend and see if things improve.

Mind you, in my case it didn't do any good and I wound up having to go to some pretty hardcore antibiotics to kick the damn thing.
posted by Stacey at 3:53 AM on November 9, 2007 [1 favorite]

Best answer: The situation is this. If you have common (non-acute) otitis media (middle ear infection) there is a good chance it will resolve on its own. Antibiotics do little to help. This, along with the common cold, are the two most common causes of misprescribed antibiotics.

If it is severe pain and infiltrative (acute) otitis media, antibiotics can help and are needed.

It might be a third thing altogether - you indicated you've had middle ear infections and this felt different. Inflammation of the eustachian tube (for whatever reason) could cut off the pressure outflow.

(I'm a pharmacologist, not a physician)
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 5:14 AM on November 9, 2007

The last time I had an ear infection (my first inner-ear infection, actually) I didn't feel any pain at all -- just a loss of hearing and a sort of squelchy feeling, like water or suds, in my left ear.

Because of those symptoms (and the fact that my hearing went shortly after I'd had a shower) I assumed that it was, indeed, water in my ear, or a wax buildup. But after 3 or 4 days of self-treatment with eardrops and no sign of my hearing returning, I went to see a doctor in frustration.

And it was a good job I did, as he immediately diagnosed the infection and put me on antibiotics straight away. He also said that if I'd left it a day or too longer, the infection would have burst my ear drum. Eeek!

So to cut a long story short, go to the doctor!
posted by macdara at 5:16 AM on November 9, 2007

2nd the lie-down-on-a-heating-pad and hairdryer-after-a-shower advise.

I recently had a middle ear clog (not super painful, just a clicking/water-in-the-ear/mild to moderate pressure thing). It went away on its own after a night and day of this sort of treatment.

I don't go to the doctor because I am broke, underinsured and pretty damn healthy.

That said DO NOT fuck around with q-tips and if it progresses beyond pressure and mild achyness, or lasts beyond a couple days, please go to the doctor. While I've never done it personally, I understand perforating an eardrum is NO FUN.
posted by lonefrontranger at 5:18 AM on November 9, 2007

Your description sounds like it may well be otitis externa, A.K.A. swimmer's ear. If that's what it is it is usually treated with topical antibiotics and is not too serious; it can be pretty uncomfortable, though. If you are not having a high fever, hearing loss, intolerable pain, or other serious symptoms, getting an appointment for early next week is a reasonable alternative to waiting in the walk-in clinic. Another potential problem which may be causing your symptoms is a cerumen impaction (keep those swabs out of your ears, people!) which may occur on its own or along with swimmer's ear. THere are other, less common things as well, but a quick look in your ears will generally give the answer, so a trip to the doc is in order, but not necessarily right now. Also, a lot of the advice given above applies to otitis media, or middle ear infections, so whether or not it is appropriate depends on what you have, which obviously can't be determined over the internet.
posted by TedW at 5:18 AM on November 9, 2007

I had a lot of ear infections when I was younger. As soon as I feel the onset of one, I immediately start taking decongestants (namely alive cold & sinus) along with using the heating pad. Since I started the heating pad regimen, I've been ear infection free. Mine were also always of the out ear, extremely painful variety.

The last thing I'd do is wait and do nothing. I made the mistake of doing this a lot in the past, and depending on your ear, the effects can be quite painful.
posted by jmd82 at 5:50 AM on November 9, 2007

I just had an ear infection which was pretty severe. I waited a week before trying to go see a doctor during which time it got worse. When I did see him, he immediately gave me Neomycin/Polymyxin drops which fixed the problem in two days. While I'm sure it could eventually clear up on its own, I wasn't willing to live with the suffering for another few weeks.
posted by JJ86 at 5:55 AM on November 9, 2007

I've had lots of ear infections (mostly as a kid, some as an adult), and nearly all of them resolved without a doctor.

...however, my idea of "resolving without a doctor" involves increasingly excruciating pain until the eardrum ruptures, allowing the goo and blood to drain out. The pain of the rupture has always been dwarfed by the relief of the pressure subsiding. Indeed, I look forward to rupture, because it means the infection will be over & done with.

Yes, really. My eardrums are like trap doors at this point.

My point is this: while I personally wouldn't bother with the doctor -- I also think you should. Maybe wait out the morning, and then go in the afternoon if it hasn't gotten any better.
posted by aramaic at 6:11 AM on November 9, 2007

Best answer: I've got abnormally narrow ear canals and that somehow correlates with ear infections. I used to get them frequently as a kid and they were *insanely* painful. They ceased around middle school for a while, but reoccurred once during undergrad and then three times in the past two years. I'd almost forgotten how miserable they can be.

For me, they're absolute, mind-rending pain. I'm not functional at all unless I'm hopped up on T3s. I'm sure the infection would eventually clear up, but it's not worth a week of agony and lost productivity for me. Apparently, it's also possible for the infection to cause hearing loss (more likely in children though) or spread to other parts of the ear, most likely the mastoid. Mastoiditis, in turn, can cause inflammation in the brain, causing meningitis or abcessing. Again, this is all rather unlikely, but it would really suck to get meningitis from a sodding ear infection. More information here.

I'd go get some *icilian now. It usually takes the antibiotics a day or two to really work, so waiting for it to get pretty painful means it's going to get even worse before it gets better even if you do get medication.
posted by Nelsormensch at 8:45 AM on November 9, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks all. I went back to bed for a bit after posting this and woke up in excruciating pain. I managed to get my doctor to squeeze me in for an appointment this afternoon so I don't have to go the walk-in clinic route and can get some antibiotics.

I'm glad I posted this though - I am going to try the heating pad / hair dryer thing as well to see if that helps while I'm waiting for the antibiotics to kick some ear bacteria ass.
posted by tastybrains at 9:34 AM on November 9, 2007

The first time I took Advil was for an ear infection and it helped a LOT.

When I feel an ear infection coming on, I do one or both of the following:

Rubbing alcohol in the affected ear- get a tissue wet with alcohol, lay on my side, and squeeze the alcohol into my ear, let it sit a few minutes, then roll over onto a dry tissue. If both ears are hurting, repeat on the other side.

Salt water gargle, especially if there is any sore throat involvement.

General clears things up in about a day for me.
posted by Doohickie at 11:02 AM on November 9, 2007

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