Otitis media: middle ear infection

Inflammation or infection located in the middle ear

What is otitis media?

Also known as a middle ear infection, otitis media occurs when there is inflammation in the middle ear and often when there is impaired middle ear ventilation. Otitis media tends to be more commonly experienced by children because of the angle of their eustachian tube, but it can also affect adults of all ages.

The different types of otitis media

There are two main types of middle ear infections including acute otitis media (AOM) and otitis media with effusion (OME). Otitis media can also occur in children.

Otitis media (AOM)

Acute otitis media (AOM) occurs when the middle ear becomes inflamed and infected. It is often accompanied by swelling and redness in the ear, as well as behind and around the ear drum. Trapped fluid and/or mucus caused by AOM can result in fever, ear pain and hearing impairment. 

Otitis media with effusion (OME)

Otitis media with effusion (OME) occurs when thick or sticky fluid builds up behind the eardrum in the middle ear. Children are more likely to experience OME due to the of angle of their eustachian tube. The angle is more horizontal in children (with an average 10 degree angle) than adults (with an average 45 degree angle). This means that bacteria in the nose and throat from respiratory infections can ascend into the middle ear cavity more easily.

Chronic otitis media

Chronic otitis media is when a middle ear infection does not go away, or repeatedly occurs over months or years. It can result in persistent or recurrent ear discharge and can be acommpanied by a tympanic membrane perforation and hearing loss. 

Otitis media often affects babies and children between the ages of six months and six years. Symptoms for babies include restless sleep and increased crying, fever, and rubbing of the affected ear. For young children, typical signs of otitis media may not be obvious. 

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Signs and symptoms of otitis media

As a result of inflammation within the ear, many people with otitis media experience some form of temporary hearing loss. Much like the condition itself, the degree of hearing loss experienced will vary from case to case. If otitis media occurs frequently or if the infection spreads to the delicate structures of the inner ear, permanent hearing damage may occur.

Other symptoms of otitis media may include pain within the ear, a high temperature, pressure within the ear, a lack of energy, discharge from the ears and congestion.

Common causes of otitis media

Otitis media commonly occurs when the eustachian tube, a canal that connects the nose and throat to the middle ear, becomes swollen and inflamed, affecting the ventilation of the middle ear. This provides the perfect environment for an infection to develop, leading to symptoms that commonly accompanies otitis media. The chances of experiencing otitis media increase with some common conditions, including colds and flus, allergies, sinus infections, and enlarged or infected adenoids.

Prevent the onset of otitis media

As otitis media typically occurs in tandem with other illnesses, such as colds and flus, the best preventative measure for adults is to practice good hygiene. Be sure to wash your hands thoroughly, especially at the height of cold and flu season.

Otitis media common treatments

In most cases, the symptoms of otitis media will only last a few days and will clear on their own, however, you should seek medical treatment from your GP if your symptoms continue to get worse, you’re in a lot of pain, or if you experience discharge from your ears. Antibiotics or anti-inflammatory medication may be prescribed in some cases if otitis media is severe or persistent.
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Possible complications

If otitis media is not treated properly, a bacterial infection can develop. While there is fluid in the middle ear, temporary hearing loss may also occur. Very rarely, when untreated, otitis media can lead to permanent hearing loss. Don't hesitate to ask for help.

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