What is it?
Otitis media refers to inflammation of the middle ear and is the most common cause of earaches. When infection occurs, the condition is called “acute otitis media.” If the infection lasts for weeks without clearing up despite treatment, it is called chronic otitis media. A fluid buildup in the ear without infection is termed serous otitis media. Three out of four children will develop otitis media by the time they are 3 years old. In fact, ear infections are the most common illnesses in babies and young children.
The primary symptoms are earache and swelling, although it may also be accompanied by a stuffy or runny nose, sore throat and fever.
Otitis media may result in serious complications if it is not treated. An untreated infection can travel from the middle ear to the nearby parts of the head, including the brain. Although the hearing loss caused by otitis media is usually temporary, untreated otitis media may lead to permanent hearing impairment.
Persistent fluid in the middle ear and chronic otitis media can reduce a child’s hearing at a time that is critical for speech and language development. Children who have early hearing impairment from frequent ear infections are at greater risk for speech and language disabilities.
Acute otitis media can occur when a cold, allergy, or upper respiratory infection–or the presence of bacteria or viruses–leads to a build-up of pus and mucus that blocks the Eustachian tube. The build-up provides a fertile breeding ground for bacteria that can cause inflammation or infection.
An examination of the ear using an otoscope will determine if otitis media is present. Inflammation of the eardrum indicates an infection. Tympanometry, which checks for fluid in the middle ear may also be conducted. If needed, an audiologist will perform a hearing test to determine if there is hearing loss.
In cases where an infection is present, treatment includes the use of antibiotics. If the patient is experiencing pain, the physician may also prescribe a pain reliever. Persistent or recurrent infections may require surgical intervention.