A viral ear infection is an infection of the ear caused by the presence of a virus. Influenza, rhinovirus, and respiratory syncytial virus are common culprits behind viral infections involving the ear. While antibiotics are commonly prescribed for severe ear infections, they will not be useful in the treatment of a viral infection, as viruses are not susceptible to antibiotic medication. Most viral ear infections resolve on their own with supportive therapy and do not require treatment.
There are several ways a virus can cause an ear infection. In some cases, viruses infecting the nose or sinuses cause inflammation and irritation in the eustachian tube, a structure that provides drainage for the ear. If the ear cannot drain, fluid builds up, causing inflammation and eventual infection within the ear. Other viruses can attack the ear itself, causing the structures in the ear to become infected. The body can usually fight the virus off, although the patient may experience some pain, discomfort, and temporary hearing loss while the infection runs its course.
In some cases, a viral ear infection can be a serious medical problem and treatment is necessary. There is a risk of penetration into the bone around the ear, along with permanent hearing loss or damage. With infections like influenza, a patient with a weakened immune system might not be able to fight the virus off and usually experiences systemic infection, not just a viral ear infection. For most patients, however, the virus is simply a temporary cause of pain and discomfort.
Some doctors prescribe antibiotics generally for ear infections, operating under the assumption that they are caused by bacteria. If the infection doesn't respond, diagnostic testing may be used to look for viruses. Treatment for viral ear infections typically includes rest and plenty of hydration to keep the patient healthy. It may be possible to provide anti-virals to treat a viral ear infection, depending on the virus responsible for the infection. Surgery to drain the ear and make the patient feel more comfortable is also an option.
Immunocompromised individuals are more at risk for infection and must take appropriate precautions to avoid infections, including those that could lead to viral ear infection. For otherwise healthy people, exercising proper hygiene is the best preventative measure for addressing viral ear infections. Washing hands regularly is recommended and people should cover their mouths and noses while sneezing and coughing to prevent the spread of infection.