Ear Infections (Otitis Media)

What is otitis media?

Acute otitis media is one of the most common conditions that pediatricians diagnose. It is an infection that results in the inflammation of the middle ear, the space directly behind the ear drum. This space is normally filled with air. Colds, respiratory infections, and allergies may cause fluid to accumulate in the middle ear space. Bacteria can grow in these conditions, and this leads to swelling, pressure, and pain. Anyone can get otitis media, but young children are much more likely to develop this because of their anatomy.

What are the symptoms of otitis media?

  • Fever (about two-thirds of children with an ear infection have one)
  • Irritability, fussiness, loss of appetite
  • Trouble sleeping
  • Headache
  • Pulling ears due to pressure or pain
  • Discharge from the ear
  • Hearing loss

How are ear infections treated?

  • Pain control – acetaminophen and ibuprofen are commonly used over-the-counter medicines. Do not give aspirin to your child, as this has been associated with Reye syndrome, which is a disease that affects the liver and brain.
  • Antibiotics – Not all ear infections require antibiotics. Some children who do not have a fever and are not severely ill may be observed without antibiotics. If your child is younger than 2 years, has a fever of 102 or higher, has severe pain, or is unable to sleep, it is important to call your pediatrician for an evaluation.

Other causes of ear pain

While middle ear infections are common causes of ear pain, there are some other important causes as well.

  • “Swimmer’s ear” is an infection of the skin of the ear canal
  • Blocked or plugged eustachian tubes
  • Sore throat or tooth pain can radiate to the ear
  • Impacted ear wax

Complications from ear infections

Although rare, complications from ear infection can develop:

  • Infection of the inner ear causes dizziness and imbalance (labyrinthitis)
  • Infection of the skull behind the ear (mastoiditis)
  • Scarring of the ear drum
  • Permanent hearing loss