Otitis Media (Ear Infection)

What is otitis media?

Anatomy of the ear

Otitis media is infection or inflammation located in the middle ear. About 75 percent of children have at least one episode of otitis media by the time they are three years of age. Otitis media can also affect adults, although it is primarily a disease that occurs most often in children.

What causes otitis media?

Inflammation usually begins when infections due to sore throats, colds, or other respiratory problems, spread to the middle ear. These infections cause fluid buildup behind the eardrum. 

What are the symptoms of otitis media?

The following are the most common symptoms of otitis media. However, individuals may experience symptoms differently.

Common signs of otitis media in children include:

  • Unusual irritability

  • Difficulty sleeping or staying asleep

  • Tugging or pulling at one or both ears

  • Fever, especially in infants and younger children

  • Fluid draining from ear(s)

  • Loss of balance

  • Hearing difficulties

The symptoms of otitis media may resemble other conditions or medical problems. Always consult your health care provider for a diagnosis.

What are the effects of otitis media?

In addition to the symptoms of otitis media listed above, untreated otitis media can result in any or all of the following:

  • Infection in other parts of the head

  • Permanent hearing loss

  • Problems with speech and language development

Can otitis media be prevented?

Cold and allergy medications do not appear to prevent otitis media. And, currently, there is no vaccine that can prevent the disease. However, it is important to consult your health care provider and make sure your child's vaccinations are up-to-date. There are certain factors that seem to increase the chances of otitis media developing in some children. These include:

  • Living in a home where cigarettes are smoked

  • Nursing with a bottle while lying down

How is otitis media diagnosed?

In addition to a complete medical history and physical examination, the health care provider will inspect the outer ear(s) and eardrum(s) using an otoscope. The otoscope is a lighted instrument that allows the health care provider to see inside the ear. A pneumatic otoscope blows a puff of air into the ear to test eardrum movement.

A tympanometry, a test that allows for air and sound to be directed into the middle ear, may also be performed.

A hearing test may be performed for people who have frequent ear infections.

Treatment for otitis media

Specific treatment for otitis media will be determined by your health care provider based on:

  • Your age, overall health, and medical history

  • Extent of the disease

  • Your tolerance for specific medications, procedures, or therapies

  • Expectations for the course of the disease

  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotic medication

  • Medication for pain

  • Surgical insertion of small tubes in the eardrum for chronic ear infections