Bacteria and viruses can infect the middle ear.
Children with ear infections may have a fever and trouble sleeping and may cry, become irritable, and pull on their ears.
Doctors use a handheld light called an otoscope to check the eardrum for redness or bulging and to look for fluid behind the eardrum.
Acetaminophen or ibuprofen can relieve fever and pain, and antibiotics are usually used when children do not get better quickly or get worse.
Acute middle ear infection (also called acute otitis media) usually develops and resolves relatively quickly. Middle ear infections that come back frequently or last for a long time are called chronic middle ear infections Chronic Middle Ear Infection in Children Chronic middle ear infection results from recurring infections that may damage the eardrum or lead to formation of a cholesteatoma, which in turn promotes more infection. Chronic middle ear... read more .
(See also Overview of Middle Ear Infections in Young Children Overview of Middle Ear Infections in Young Children Middle ear infection is infection of the space immediately behind the eardrum. Middle ear infections (otitis media) may occur in older children and adults (see Otitis Media (Acute)) but are... read more and Otitis Media (Acute) Otitis Media (Acute) Acute otitis media is a bacterial or viral infection of the middle ear. Acute otitis media often occurs in people with a cold or allergies. The infected ear is painful. Doctors examine the eardrum... read more in adults.)
An acute middle ear infection is most often caused by the same viruses that cause the common cold Common Cold The common cold is a viral infection of the lining of the nose, sinuses, and throat. Many different viruses cause colds. Usually, colds are spread when a person's hands come in contact with... read more . Acute infection may also be caused by bacteria that sometimes normally reside in the mouth and nose. Bacteria that affect newborns include Escherichia coli and Staphylococcus aureus. Bacteria that affect older infants and children include Streptococcus pneumoniae, Haemophilus influenzae, and Moraxella catarrhalis. An infection initially caused by a virus sometimes leads to a bacterial infection.
Infants with acute middle ear infections have a fever and trouble sleeping. They cry or become irritable for no apparent reason. They may also have a runny nose, cough, vomiting, and diarrhea. The ear is painful (see Earache Earache Earache usually occurs in only one ear. Some people also have ear discharge or, rarely, hearing loss. Ear pain may be due to a disorder within the ear itself or a disorder in a nearby body part... read more ), and hearing may be decreased. Infants and children who cannot communicate verbally may pull at their ears. Older children are usually able to tell parents that their ear hurts or that they cannot hear well.
Commonly, fluid accumulates behind the eardrum and remains after the acute infection has resolved. This disorder is called secretory otitis media Secretory Otitis Media in Children Secretory otitis media is fluid that accumulates behind the eardrum and remains there after an acute middle ear infection or blockage of the eustachian tube. A previous ear infection is the... read more .
Rarely, an acute middle ear infection leads to more serious complications. The eardrum may rupture, causing blood or fluid to drain from the ear (see Ear Discharge Ear Discharge Ear discharge (otorrhea) is drainage from the ear. The drainage may be watery, bloody, or thick and whitish, like pus (purulent). Depending on the cause of the discharge, people may also have... read more ). Also, nearby structures may become infected, cause symptoms, and require emergency treatment:
Infection of the bone surrounding the ear (mastoiditis Mastoiditis Mastoiditis is a bacterial infection in the mastoid process, which is the prominent bone behind the ear. Mastoiditis usually occurs when untreated or inadequately treated acute otitis media... read more ) causes pain.
Infection of the inner ear (labyrinthitis Purulent Labyrinthitis Purulent (suppurative) labyrinthitis is a bacterial infection of the inner ear that often causes deafness and loss of balance. The labyrinth is the bony cavity that contains the inner ear. The... read more ) causes dizziness Dizziness and Vertigo Dizziness is an inexact term people often use to describe various related sensations, including Faintness (feeling about to pass out) Light-headedness Dysequilibrium (feeling off balance or... read more and deafness Hearing Impairment in Children Hearing loss in newborns most commonly results from cytomegalovirus infection or genetic defects and in older children results from ear infections or earwax. If children do not respond to sounds... read more .
Infection of the tissues surrounding the brain (meningitis Introduction to Meningitis Meningitis is inflammation of the layers of tissue that cover the brain and spinal cord (meninges) and of the fluid-filled space between the meninges (subarachnoid space). Meningitis can be... read more ) or collections of pus in the brain Abscess of the Brain A brain abscess is a pocket of pus in the brain. An abscess may form in the brain when bacteria from an infection elsewhere in the head or in the bloodstream or from a wound enter the brain... read more cause headache, confusion, seizures Seizures in Children Seizures are a periodic disturbance of the brain’s electrical activity, resulting in some degree of temporary brain dysfunction. When older infants or young children have seizures, they often... read more , and other neurologic problems.
If infections come back, abnormal skinlike tissue called a cholesteatoma Complications Chronic middle ear infection results from recurring infections that may damage the eardrum or lead to formation of a cholesteatoma, which in turn promotes more infection. Chronic middle ear... read more may grow in the middle ear and potentially through the eardrum. A cholesteatoma can damage the bones of the middle ear and cause hearing loss.
Doctors diagnose acute middle ear infections by using a handheld light called an otoscope to look for bulging and redness of the eardrum and for fluid behind the eardrum. They may need to clean wax from the ear first so they can see more clearly. Doctors may use a rubber bulb and tube attached to the otoscope to squeeze air into the ear to see if the eardrum moves. If the eardrum does not move or moves only slightly, fluid in the middle ear, which is one sign of infection, may be present.
The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine Pneumococcal Vaccine Pneumococcal vaccines help protect against bacterial infections caused by Streptococcus pneumoniae (pneumococci). Pneumococcal infections include ear infections, sinusitis, pneumonia, bloodstream... read more , Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine Haemophilus influenzae Type b Vaccine The Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib) vaccine helps protect against bacterial infections due to Hib, such as pneumonia and meningitis. These infections may be serious in children. Use of the... read more , and influenza (flu) virus vaccine Influenza Vaccine The influenza virus vaccine helps protect against influenza. Two types of influenza virus, type A and type B, regularly cause seasonal epidemics of influenza in the United States. There are... read more decrease the risk of acute middle ear infections. These vaccines are given to children according to a standard schedule Childhood Vaccination Schedule Most doctors follow the vaccination schedule recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC—see the schedule for infants and children and the schedule for older children... read more .
Infants should not sleep with a bottle because drinking from a bottle while going to sleep tends to cause fluid to collect in the eustachian tubes. Fluid in the eustachian tubes traps secretions in the middle ear and prevents air from reaching the middle ear, both of which make infection more likely. Smoking should be eliminated from the household or minimized.
Recurring acute otitis media may be prevented by inserting tiny tubes into the eardrum (tympanostomy tubes). These tubes balance the pressure on both sides of the eardrum so fluid is less likely to accumulate (see treatment of chronic middle ear infections Treatment Chronic middle ear infection results from recurring infections that may damage the eardrum or lead to formation of a cholesteatoma, which in turn promotes more infection. Chronic middle ear... read more ).
Acetaminophen or ibuprofen is effective for fever and pain.
Most acute middle ear infections resolve without antibiotics. Thus, many doctors use antibiotics only when children are very young or very ill, do not improve after a brief period of time, when there are signs that the infection is getting worse, or when children have frequent infections. Antibiotics, such as amoxicillin (with or without clavulanate), may be used.
For children, antihistamines (such as brompheniramine or chlorpheniramine) and vasoconstrictors (drugs that constrict blood vessels, also sometimes called decongestants) are not helpful.
If the eardrum is bulging and the child has severe or persistent pain, fever, vomiting, or diarrhea, a doctor may puncture the eardrum (called myringotomy ) to allow the infected fluid to drain. Sometimes doctors then also insert tympanostomy tubes. After this procedure, symptoms usually resolve quickly, hearing returns, and the eardrum heals on its own.