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Middle ear infection (otitis media) – symptoms, treatment, prevention

 
Middle ear infection, also referred to as otitis media, is a bacterial or viral infection with symptoms including earache, temporary hearing loss, and fluid discharge. A middle ear infection that does not clear up on its own may require treatment with antibiotics.

Ear examination 1
Middle ear infections occur mainly in early childhood, although older children and adults also get these kinds of infection. The incidence of acute ear infection in New Zealand children (aged less than 5 years) was recently estimated at 27%. A complication associated with middle ear infections is the retention of fluid, causing "glue ear". Children should always be taken to a doctor if they have earache.

What is middle ear infection (otitis media)?

The ear is made up of three different sections: the outer ear, the middle ear, and the inner ear. These parts all work together so you can hear and process sounds. The outer and middle ear are separated by the eardrum – a very thin piece of skin that vibrates when hit by sound waves.

This page deals with middle ear infection (otitis media), which is the infection / inflammation of the air-filled space behind the eardrum. This space can become blocked and filled with mucus (fluid), which can become infected, causing inflammation.  

There are two types of middle ear infection. An acute infection starts suddenly and lasts for a short period of time, while a chronic ear infection is one that does not get better or keeps coming back. Chronic ear infection can result in long-term damage to the ear.

Sometimes fluid will remain in the middle ear after an ear infection, causing "glue ear", a relatively common condition that is often undetected among New Zealand pre-schoolers. Glue ear can adversely affect hearing and may take several weeks to resolve. Children with a suspected ear infection, or who have difficulty hearing, should see a doctor. Children with evidence of damage to the inside of the ear, hearing loss, or language learning delay are likely to be referred to an ear, nose, and throat specialist (otolaryngologist). Outer ear infection (otitis externa) is characteristically different to middle ear infection. This is a skin infection in the outer ear canal which may start as an itch and develop into infection causing inflammation. Sometimes referred to as swimmer’s ear, this kind of infection can normally be treated effectively with ear drops from your doctor or pharmacist. 

Causes

A middle ear infection often begins as a common cold, influenza (flu), sinusitis, or strep throat infection. The nose and throat are connected to the ear by the eustachian tubes; bacteria enter the nose or throat and travel up the eustachian tubes to the middle ear. The accumulation of fluid in a blocked eustachian tube may increase the pressure within the middle ear causing pain, and cause the ear drum to rupture. Although the ear drum will repair itself, frequent rupture (which can occur with chronic ear infection) may result in the development of scar tissue on the ear drum and hearing loss. Middle ear infections are common in children because their eustachian tubes are narrow and easily blocked.

Symptoms and diagnosis

Typical signs and symptoms of middle ear infection include:

  • A feeling of pressure or blockage in the ear 
  • Pain in the ear that is sharp, dull, or throbbing
  • Muffled hearing 
  • Discharge from the ear, known as runny ear 
  • Ringing in the ears (tinnitus) 
  • Fever 
  • Headache 
  • Irritability 
  • Dizziness or loss of balance 
  • Vomiting and diarrhoea

Specific signs that your baby may have an ear infection include crying or grizzling more than usual, they keep touching their ear, and/or they have a discharge from the ear. An older child may show some of these signs or complain of having a sore ear.

To diagnose ear infection, a doctor will likely use an otoscope, which is an specialised instrument, with a light and magnifying glass, to look inside the ear.

Note, earache is a common symptom of middle ear infection but not all earaches are caused by a middle ear infection. A build-up of ear wax in the outer ear, or changes in altitude or air pressure, are examples of other causes of blockage or earache. 

Treatment

Ear infections usually clear up on their own, so treatment may begin with managing pain and close monitoring of the condition. However, ear infection in infants and severe cases are likely to require treatment with antibiotic medication. Amoxicillin is the antibiotic of choice for treating acute otitis media in patients who are not allergic to penicillin.

The antibiotic should be taken exactly as directed and until the course has been finished. Babies or children should be taken back to the doctor or health nurse once the course of antibiotic has been finished to confirm that the infection has cleared up properly. An earlier return visit to the doctor may be necessary if there has been no improvement in your child’s symptoms. The doctor may want to try a different antibiotic.

After seeing your doctor, self-treatment may help to relieve symptoms, including: 

  • Holding a moist warm face cloth or wheat bag against the infected ear 
  • Taking paracetamol for relief of pain or fever 
  • Lying with the affected ear against your pillow, or sitting propped up in bed
  • Gently washing the outer ear with soap and a face cloth to remove any discharge 
  • Keeping background noise in the home to a minimum

You should never use cotton buds to clean your ears or your baby’s ears, or put anything into the ear that has not been prescribed by a doctor, as the eardrum is delicate and can be easily damaged. 

Prevention

The risk of middle ear infections in babies can be reduced by ensuring a smoke-free environment and breast feeding in an upright position. Showing older children how to blow their nose properly can also help prevent ear infection.

Taking precautions to avoid catching a cold or flu will also reduce the risk of developing a middle ear infection. This can be achieved by washing hands frequently, not sharing eating and drinking utensils, covering the mouth when sneezing, and getting a seasonal flu vaccination.

The use of a nasal decongestant during a cold, influenza, or sinusitis, may also help to prevent an ear infection. 

Further information

Ministry of Health
Healthline 0800 611 116
www.healthline.govt.nz

Royal New Zealand Plunket Society
PlunketLine 0800 933 922 

References

Harmes KM, et al. Otitis media: diagnosis and treatment. Am Fam Physician 2013;88(7):435-40.
Gribben B, et al. The incidence of acute otitis media in New Zealand children under five years of age in the primary care setting. J Prim Health Care. 2012;4(3):205-12.
Ministry of Health. Earache (Web Page). Wellington: Ministry of Health [Accessed: 20/01/2014]
Ministry of Health. Earache Taringa ngau (Pamphlet). Wellington: Ministry of Health.
O’Toole, M.T. (Ed.) (2013). Otitis media. Mosby’s Dictionary of Medicine, Nursing & Health Professions (9th ed.). St Louis: Elsevier Mosby.
Waseem, M (2013). Otitis media. Medscape Reference: Drugs, Disease & Procedures. New York: WebMD LLC. Otitis Media (Web Page) [Accessed 20/01/2014]

Created: January 2014 
 

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