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Can Allergies Cause Ear Infections?

May 25, 2024 • read

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Can Allergies Cause Ear Infections?

Allergies affect over 25% of Canadians each year with over 40% reporting seasonal allergies to pollen and grasses. Symptoms can be mild to severe and, in some cases, lead to painful ear infections. In this article, we’ll discuss how allergies can affect your ears, along with preventive measures and treatment options for allergy-related ear pain and infections.

Allergies and their impact on ear pain

Symptoms of nasal allergies are a natural immune response to a perceived threat, like pet dander, pollen and other generally harmless airborne particles. The immune response can cause inflammation in your sinuses, airways, skin and digestive system. 

When your allergic response focuses on the nose and sinuses, it’s called allergic rhinitis. Symptoms of allergic rhinitis include: 

  • Nasal itching
  • Congestion
  • Runny nose
  • Sneezing
  • An itchy roof of the mouth
  • Post-nasal drip and associated cough
  • Irritability and fatigue sometimes too

Allergic rhinitis can be acute or chronic. Acute rhinitis is also known as seasonal allergies because it comes and goes with the seasons and often also includes symptoms involving the eyes (allergic conjunctivitis). It usually lasts four days out of the week or up to four weeks and when symptoms are mild it doesn’t generally require major intervention. Chronic rhinitis is a constant state of allergic response or involves frequent flare-ups lasting more than four days per week or for more than four weeks — it’s especially common if you have pet allergies and keep animals in your home. Moderate or severe cases can interfere with sleep and school or work performance. 

Common allergens, indoors and out

There is no shortage of potential airborne allergens in and outside of your home. These are some of the most common:

  • Mould 
  • Tree and grass pollen (usually in spring and summer months)
  • Ragweed and mugwort pollen (more common in the late summer into fall)
  • Pet dander and fur
  • Grass clippings
  • Household dust
  • Dust mites

Can allergies directly cause ear infections? 

Allergies don’t cause ear infections — viruses and bacteria do. However,  the overactive immune response common with allergic rhinitis can create the perfect environment for an ear infection to take hold. So, while ear infections are not one of the immune responses to allergies, allergies can lead to an ear infection.

How do allergies contribute to ear pain? 

Your ears, nose and throat have an interlinked passageway that makes sharing symptoms between them easy. The inflammation and excess mucus caused by an allergic reaction can swell the middle and inner ear anatomy — specifically, the eustachian tubes that connect your middle ear to your nose and throat. The combination of inflammation and mucus buildup in the middle ear can be quite painful.

Preventive measures to avoid allergy-related ear infections

Allergy-related ear infections are painful and disruptive to your daily life. The good news is that you can take a few steps to help prevent ear infections caused by allergies. Follow these tips to reduce your risk of allergy-related ear infections.

Identify your triggers

If seasonal allergies are new to you or your family, you may not know what the cause is yet. Knowing what you’re allergic to can help you avoid future contact. Visit an allergist and immunologist to help identify your specific allergy triggers.

Some considerations when swimming

Allergic inflammation can make it easy for water to get trapped in your ear while swimming, increasing your ear pain and potentially leading to an ear infection or swimmer’s ear. To avoid this while still enjoying the benefits of swimming this summer, ensure to dry out your ears well after swimming. Remember not to put anything smaller than your knuckle into your ear, but using a blowdryer can sometimes help. 

Stay indoors during peak times

Many outdoor airborne allergens have a peak time. For example, pollen counts surge after rainfall. Grass and tree pollen thrive during cool nights and warm days, with the highest counts occurring early in the day. Monitor the weather report for airborne allergen counts and plan your time outdoors when counts are lower to limit exposure. 

Improve your indoor air quality

Your HVAC system does more than regulate your home’s temperature. It helps to circulate air and improve indoor air quality (IAQ). Change your HVAC system’s air filter regularly, and keep your windows closed to reduce airborne contaminants and lower the chances of an allergic reaction. 

Keep a clean, dry home

Mould is a common allergen that loves warm, humid environments. Keep your home clean and dry to prevent mould growth, and avoid musty locations in your home like your basement or crawlspace. Consider a dehumidifier to help get your home to the ideal humidity level, between 30 and 50 percent.

Bathe each night

Allergens can cling to your clothes, skin and hair. Wash away contaminants every day before bed to keep your bedding allergen-free and help ensure a restful sleep.

Create no-pet zones

If you have indoor pets contributing to your allergies, keep them off furniture and out of your bedrooms to prevent the spread of fur and dander throughout your house. It may also be beneficial to bathe your furry friend once a week to reduce their dander and shedding. 

Avoid carpeting

Carpets trap dust and allergens, which can be a major factor in chronic allergies. If you have persistent or severe allergies, consider replacing wall-to-wall carpeting with hard flooring, and put down washable area rugs. 

If carpet exposure is unavoidable outside the home, take an antihistamine before heading out, or wear a NIOSH-rated 95 filter mask. 

Treatment options for allergy-related ear infections

When you or a loved one suffers from an allergy-induced ear infection, getting fast relief is your top concern. The good news is that you have several treatment options.

Medications for alleviating both allergies and ear pain or infections

Medication options for treating allergies and related ear pain include these over-the-counter medicines that can help treat mild to moderate symptoms:

  • Ear drops that contain medication to limit fungus and bacteria growth, as well as a drying agent to clear away the moist environment that microbes love.
  • Antihistamines can help relieve itching, sneezing, and runny nose.
  • Decongestants and nasal steroid sprays help reduce swollen blood vessels and tissues that can cause or worsen ear pain.
  • Pain medication like acetaminophen or ibuprofen can help reduce ear discomfort.

Home remedies for soothing ear discomfort caused by allergies

A few home remedies can help ease ear discomfort and soothe mild to moderate symptoms. Avoid putting anything directly into the ear canal, which can cause further injury. Try the following home remedies for allergy-related ear pain:

  • Warm compress: Apply a warm compress to the affected ear, and leave it on for five minutes. Ensure the compress is at a comfortable temperature — it shouldn’t be so hot or sopping wet that it causes more pain or worsens your symptoms. 
  • Salt compress: Heat coarse salt in a pan until it’s warm but not hot. Add it to a small bag or a clean sock and place it on the affected ear. Salt may help draw out the excess moisture, and the heat can help soothe the pain. Do not put salt directly into the ear. 
  • Sleep on the other side: Avoid sleeping on the same side as your infection — it can increase the pressure, discomfort and inflammation in the affected ear.

When to see a doctor

Ear infections can be dangerous if left untreated. While mild to moderate infections typically clear up in two to three weeks, your doctor may prescribe medication for more severe cases. 

Talk to your doctor if:

  • You have other serious medical problems
  • You are vomiting
  • You have a fever
  • Your pain is severe
  • You experience hearing loss or dizziness
  • You have fluid, puss or blood draining from your ear
  • You have redness or swelling behind the ear
  • You have frequent or recurrent ear infections

If you’re one of 6.5 million Canadians who don’t have a primary care provider, Maple provides direct access to doctors and nurse practitioners 24/7, where you can discuss your symptoms over text or video chat.

Diagnostic procedures for identifying allergies and ear infections

Your doctor can diagnose an ear infection by looking inside your ear with an instrument called an otoscope. They may swab the area and order tests to determine if it’s a bacterial infection. 

While acute ear pain can’t be diagnosed and treated virtually, you can make an appointment with an allergy specialist or immunologist to help you determine what you’re allergic to and create a treatment plan to reduce symptoms and related ear pain and infections.

The information presented here is for educational purposes, and should not replace the advice from your medical professional. Virtual care is not meant for medical emergencies. If you are experiencing an emergency like chest pain or difficulties breathing, for example, please call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room.

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