Definition & Overview

Acute Otitis Media, more popularly known as an ear infection, is a condition that affects the middle ear typically caused by viruses or bacteria. With symptoms that are usually painful, the condition is characterized by inflamed middle ear and fluid build up in the area. It is more common in children. Most of the time, an ear infection will heal without any medical assistance, but the condition will need to be monitored. Pain relievers are often the first medications prescribed for the condition, however if the ear infection worsens, the condition will have to be treated with antibiotics.

Without treatment, an ear infection can result in major damage and will result in loss of hearing or other serious complications.

Symptoms of ear infections in children

Children, especially infants are prone to ear infections. They can display one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Frequent crying most likely caused by the pain
  • Fever over 100 F or 38 C
  • Pulling the infected ear
  • Loss of appetite
  • Loss of balance
  • Hearing difficulties

Symptoms of ear infections in adults

Adults with an ear infection will experience pain in the ears, diminished hearing capabilities, and have fluid originating from inside the ears. Pain as a result of the ear infection can be moderate to severe.

When Should You Call a Doctor?

Ear infections can progress rapidly in children. You should consider consulting your physician when the symptoms last more than a day, if the child complains of severe pain in the ear or you notice fluid discharge (pus or blood).

Ear Infection and Its Complications

Ear infections are caused by viruses or bacteria, normally resulting from other illnesses such as a cold, flu, or an allergy. The infection will usually be at the Eustachian tubes that are located in the middle ear. These tubes are responsible for regulating pressure in the middle ear as well as providing the ear with fresh air and draining fluids that build up in the area.

When an ear infection is left untreated, it can result in serious complications. These include:

  • Children may experience speech difficulties or delays in their overall development
  • A tear may develop in the eardrum that could require a surgery
  • Permanent hearing impairment
  • Infection spreading to other areas including the brain.

Ear Infection Diagnosis

Ear infections are diagnosed as acute otitis media. The doctor may also diagnose it as an otitis media with effusion, meaning there is fluid in the middle ear but no signs of an infection. If the diagnosis is a chronic suppurative otitis media, it means that the eardrum has experienced a tear or perforations.

Available Treatments

Treatment of ear infections usually begins with tests to diagnose the severity of the condition. The doctor will look inside the ear using a pneumatic otoscope to determine the amount of fluid in the eardrums. Eardrums will move when exposed to air. If the eardrum contains fluid, there will be little or no movement.

The doctor may also request a tympanometry test, an acoustic reflectometry, or a tympanocentesis. In a tympanocentesis, the doctor will pierce the eardrum using a tiny tube to drain the fluid. The fluid will then be tested to determine the type of infection.

Before using any medication or suggesting any procedure, the doctor will typically wait and see first if the infection heals on its own. Many infections will heal within one or two weeks without any medications (other than pain relievers). If the ear infection persists, antibiotics will be used to treat the infection. In chronic cases, the doctor may need to prescribe antibiotics that are administered as drops. However, before administering these types of antibiotics, fluids need to be cleared first. The doctor will demonstrate the procedure of removing fluids from the middle ear using suction.

Prevention of ear infections

Ear infections can be prevented by simple actions, such as washing hands frequently to avoid the common cold and similar illnesses. Avoiding secondhand smoke can also help prevent an ear infection. Infants that are breastfed are less likely to be infected. If the infant is being fed using a bottle, avoid feeding while the infant is lying down. Flu vaccinations can also help prevent ear infections by preventing the onset of flu, which is one of the primary causes of an ear infection.


  • National Institute of Deafness & Other Communication Disorders
  • American Academy of Otalaryngology
  • American Academy of Pediatrics
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