It’s not just kids who get ear infections — adults can have them, too. Here’s how to reduce your risk.

If you feel pain or fullness in your ear, notice fluid leaking out or are having trouble hearing, you might have an ear infection. Although more common in children, adults can get them as well — especially in the winter, when colds and flu lead to secondary infections.

Ear infections occur when your middle ear gets clogged and air can’t get through, creating a moist breeding ground for bacteria.

“Simple acute ear infections can occur if the Eustachian tube, which connects the nose to the middle ear space, gets blocked and fluid builds up,” said John S. Oghalai, MD, professor of clinical otolaryngology and clinical department chair of the USC Caruso Department of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Keck School of Medicine of USC and an otolaryngologist at Keck Medicine of USC. Children are more likely to get ear infections because their Eustachian tubes are shorter and more horizontal, so they don’t drain as well.

You can take measures to reduce your risk of infection, especially in the colder months when they are more common:

Practice cold prevention

The more you’re sick with colds, the more likely one will turn into an ear infection. So remember to wash your hands well, especially before touching your face or eating, and avoid sick people.

Try nasal irrigation

Dr. Oghalai recommends rinsing out your nose to keep your passages free and clear.

“The best preventive measure is probably daily nasal irrigation with saline to remove irritants and allergens from the nasopharynx, the back of the nose where the Eustachian tube opening is,” he said.

Get a flu shot

Along with cold prevention, you should take measures for avoiding the flu as well. Reducing your risk of coming down with influenza means less risk of germs migrating to your ears while you’re sick.

Take care of allergies

Allergies can wreak havoc when heading into winter, but keeping them under control can keep your ear tubes from getting swollen. Dr. Oghalai recommends anti-allergy nasal sprays such as Flonase or Nasonex.

Keep your ears clean and dry

Proper hygiene also can help keep your ears healthy. After showering, use your finger and a tissue. You can even use a blow dryer while you’re drying your hair. But, “never use a Q-Tip,” according to Dr. Oghalai.

“It takes out about half the ear wax and pushes the other half in very deep, where it is really hard to get it out,” he said. “Ear wax naturally comes out in the shower, and most people have no need to worry about build up.”

Don’t smoke

Cigarette smoke is an irritant, and smoking can lead to your tubes becoming inflamed. And secondhand smoke can have a similar effect.

“Stay away from irritants, pollution and smoke,” Dr. Oghalai said.

When to see the doctor

Ear infections often clear up on their own without antibiotics, but if you’re in a lot of pain or it’s been a few days, call your doctor. Chronic ear infections can be a problem for some people with a perforated ear drum or a long history of ear disease since childhood. Talk to your doctor about your options in this case.

“If fluid continues to build up in the middle ear space, we now consider Eustachian tube dilation,” Dr. Oghalai said. “A balloon is used to dilate the Eustachian tube to improve aeration and fluid drainage. If this is done, an ear tube is not needed, lowering the risk for long-term side effects that can be associated with this treatment.”

By Tina Donvito

If you think you may have an ear infection, make an appointment with one of our otolaryngology specialists at Keck Medicine at USC. If you are in the Los Angeles area, schedule an appointment by calling (800) USC-CARE (800-872-2273) or by visiting keckmedicine.org/request-an-appointment.