Otitis Media: Middle Ear Infection

What is otitis media?

Otitis media is an inflammation or infection of the middle ear estimated to affect at least one in four young people before they reach double figures. Approximately 75% of cases occur in children under the age of ten.

Infants between six and 15 months old are the most commonly affected, but as an adult you can also suffer from otitis media too. Most cases pass within a few days without any need to consult your local GP, but if you or your child suffer from any other underlying health conditions or see no signs of improvement within a week, we highly recommend you contact your local GP for further medical advice.

Otitis media symptoms

If you or your child are suffering from otitis media, you may notice some of the following warning signs:

  • Pulling, tugging or rubbing of the ear
  • Feverish temperature
  • Poor feeding
  • Restlessness when trying to sleep
  • Irritability
  • A lack of response to quiet sounds
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea
  • Earache
  • Runny nose
  • Loss of balance

In some cases, you may find you develop a hole in your eardrum, this is known as a perforation. This allows pus to run out of the ear, relieving any earache symptoms.

Otitis media causes

Most middle ear infections are caused by a bacterial infection that spreads into the middle ear, often as a result of mucus build up from a cold or flu. This mucus gets trapped in the middle ear, causing the Eustachian tube - responsible for regulating air pressure in the middle ear - to become swollen. The Eustachian tube can also be blocked by an enlarged adenoid, the soft tissue at the back of your nose. If the adenoid causes persistent ear infections, it can be permanently removed.

Due to children's Eustachian tubes being smaller compared to you as an adult, they will be more prone to swelling of the adenoids, and are more susceptible to otitis media.

With this mind, several factors may trigger the condition:

  • Frequent nose or throat infections
  • Attending a nursery where infection exposure is likely to be higher
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke (passive smoking)
  • Feeding your children when they're flat on their back
  • Having a cleft palate
  • Having Down syndrome

Otitis media treatments

If you suspect that you or your child has otitis media, it can normally be identified using an otoscope, a medical device that has a magnifying glass attached to one end so your GP can look inside your ear. Your local GP will also be able to look for a bulging ear drum, an unusual colour or any perforations in the eardrum.

When the infection has been diagnosed, you may find that you are simply asked to take antibiotics and painkillers. Antibiotics will normally only be considered if you or your child has more severe symptoms such as earache and/or ear discharge.

If you suspect that you or your child has otitis media, always consult a medical professional in the first instance. 

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