Ear, Nose & Throat

Cold Air Does Not Cause Ear Infections. So, What Does?

written by Becki Andrus

How often do kids get told to put on their hats before going out into the cold weather? Not only does a hat help to preserve body heat in cold weather, but many people also believe that covering the ears helps protect against ear infections.

When it gets cold, breaking out the coats, hats, and scarves is essential, especially when the temperatures drop at night. Some people find that cold weather results in aches, illnesses, and pain.

You might notice that your ears start hurting when you’re spending time in cold weather. Does this experience mean that you are at a higher risk for an ear infection?

How Cold Weather Affects the Ears

The truth is that cold air isn’t the cause of ear infections. But there are many ways your ears can be affected by the cold.

Sensitive areas of the body are prone to aches and pains when exposed to cold weather.

In the ears, the nerves are just under the skin. So when the cold air hits, the pain can travel through the nerves and deeper into the ears. For some people, this experience can be unbearable at times.

Sometimes people confuse this sensation with an ear infection or illness. However, even though you are feeling pain and symptoms, it doesn’t necessarily mean that there is an underlying infection.

Cold weather can make the pain more pronounced. But there is a difference between temporary ear pain in cold weather vs. an ear infection.

Tips for Protecting the Ears in the Cold

Keep in mind that there is minimal protection on the ears. There isn’t much fat or tissue to offer a barrier against cold and wind. So, the ears are exposed when the wind is blowing, which can result in nerve pain that causes an earache.

You can cover the ears with a hat, scarf, or earmuffs to protect against outside elements. This helps to reduce immediate symptoms so you can avoid the pain.

Also, limit the time you are spending outside when it is cold. If you can reduce your cold exposure to short periods of time, it reduces the way the cold affects the ears, nose, and throat.

Why Your Nose Runs When It’s Cold Outside

One common symptom when people spend time in the cold is that the nose starts to run, known as “cold-induced rhinorrhea.”

The nose plays a vital role in warming and humidifying the air you breathe before it moves into your lungs. When you are in cold, dry air, the nose generates liquid to prepare the air. Any excess moisture drips out of the nose.

It’s important to understand how much the nose and ears are connected. For example, if your nose is running a lot or you are dealing with sinus issues, it could cause a domino effect that impacts your ears.

So, even though cold weather isn’t a direct cause that creates ear infections, the cold weather can affect the nose and eventually lead to the development of an ear infection in some cases.

What is the Real Cause of Ear Infections?

Even though cold exposure to the ears doesn’t cause the development of an ear infection, it’s possible that spending too much time outside can lead to congestion and coughing. The upper respiratory symptoms can lead to secondary infections.

For example, if your nose is running and you have congestion in cold weather, it creates a breeding ground for bacteria that cause infections. This infection can travel to the sinuses or ears and become a painful infection.

The cold weather itself didn’t cause the infection. Instead, the cold temperatures made the nose start running, which set the conditions that could develop an infection as a result.

Understanding the Difference: Cold Ears vs. Ear Infections

When you feel ear pain in cold weather, the sensory nerve issues will usually subside when you warm up again. Simply step back inside a heated building, and the pain will start to diminish.

On the other hand, ear infections cause ongoing pain and other symptoms as well.

When the middle ear is clogged, the moisture in this portion of the ear develops a breeding ground for bacterial growth. As the infection worsens, it puts more pressure and pain in the ear.

Symptoms of an ear infection include:

  • Pain deep within the ear
  • Pain is getting worse with time
  • A sensation of fullness in the ear
  • Fluid leaking out of the ear
  • Difficulty hearing

Are You at Risk for Ear Infections?

Children often get ear infections, but adults are at risk as well. Anyone can develop an infection if there are conditions that promote bacterial growth in the middle ear.

Why do children have a higher risk of ear infections? It’s because they have shorter Eustachian tubes positioned more horizontally, making it harder for the ears to drain.

The risk of ear infections goes up when people have upper respiratory infections, such as the flu or a head cold. Since these illnesses are more common in the winter months, the risk of ear infections also increases when it’s cold outside.

Ear Infection Treatments

Ear infections are usually caused by bacteria, so antibiotics can be helpful to clear up the infection. However, if it’s a viral infection, then the doctor won’t prescribe antibiotics.

Additionally, you can use other home remedies to relieve the symptoms. For example, over-the-counter pain medication can be helpful so you can cope with the symptoms while you are healing from the infection.

Before taking any medication, it’s always wise to talk to the doctor about specific recommendations based on your unique health condition and medical history.

Everyday Tips to Prevent Ear Infections

There are a few things you can do to prevent ear infections:

  1. Reduce the Risk of Illness: Follow regular hygiene practices to minimize the risk of contracting a head cold or other types of upper respiratory infections. Wash your hands frequently and avoid contact with people who are sick.
  2. Nasal Irrigation: Rinsing out the nose can keep the sinuses and nasal passages clear and open. Daily nasal irrigation helps to remove irritants and keep the Eustachian tube opening free of infection-causing compounds.
  3. Allergy Management: When you have allergy symptoms, it often increases mucus production and nasal dripping. Managing your allergies minimizes the conditions that promote secondary infections, such as ear infections.
  4. Ear Hygiene: Keep your ears dry and clean after showering. Use a tissue over your finger to dry the outside inside areas of the ears. Never insert a cotton swab in the ear. Instead, try blowing gentle, warm air from the hairdryer into the ear.

Do You Need to See a Doctor for an Ear Infection?

Minor ear infections can clear up with home remedies. But if you notice that the pain is getting worse and the earache is sticking around for a few days, then it might be time to talk to a doctor.

You can schedule an ENT appointment with our team if you live in or near the Collin County or Dallas area. Contact Collin County Ear, Nose, and Throat to talk to an ENT specialist at one of our offices in Frisco or Plano, TX. We have an online form for appointment requests, or you can call: (972) 596-4005.

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