Otitis Media: Middle Ear Infections

Middle ear infection (otitis media) often occurs after a cold or infection of the upper airways. There are tubes (Eustachian tubes) which drain fluid from the ears to the back of the throat, and these tubes can become swollen and blocked during a cold. The fluid that remains in the ear is susceptible to germs which can cause an infection.  Middle ear infections can occur in both adults and children. Because of ongoing growth and development of the face and ears, young children are more susceptible to these infections.

The middle ear is a pocket of air behind the ear drum. The Eustachian tubes run from the middle ear to the back of the nose. When you need to equalize pressure on both sides of the ear drum (in an ascending airplane for example), you can swallow or yawn. During an ear infection, pressure from excess fluid builds up and presses on the ear drum causing pain.

Acute Otitis Media

The symptoms of acute otitis media are ear pain, fever, a decrease in hearing, and perhaps dizziness. If there is drainage from the ear, it could be caused by the ear drum bursting. Usually this will be accompanied by a decrease in pain because the pressure on the ear drum has been relieved. In this case, even though the child feels better, he should be seen by a doctor as soon as possible.

The usual treatment for otitis media is a course of antibiotics which can be accompanied by a pain reliever / fever reducer. Sometimes the antibiotics are oral, sometimes they are ear drops, on some occasions both may be used at the same time. The pain is usually alleviated quite quickly due to the action of the antibiotics, but it’s important to follow the full course of the medication or otherwise the infection may not clear up completely. 

Serous Otitis Media

Also known as otitis media with effusion, and Glue Ear, this is another common condition that affects mainly children between the ages of two and five. It is characterized by a sticky glue-like substance that collects in the ear. It may cause a temporary loss of hearing, but if left untreated it could cause permanent hearing loss.

Just like acute otitis media, serous otitis media is a common side-effect of colds. It can also be aggravated by allergies or dust or cigarette smoke. It is quite often seen in children with cleft palates.

Serous otitis media affects hearing by creating either a temporary or sometimes permanent conductive hearing loss. In younger children, glue ear can delay language development. In older children, it can cause balance problems as well as a decrease in hearing ability. Turning the TV louder, asking for repetition, and unusual clumsiness may be indications of glue ear.

Serous otitis media can last a long time, but most children eventually recover from it naturally. A doctor may prescribe antibiotics or decongestants to alleviate the fluid build-up, and the condition will be followed for several months to see if any other complications develop.

Serous otitis media and recurring ear infections that don’t respond to antibiotics may be surgically treated. In a simple procedure, a tube (sometimes called a PE or “pressure equalization” tube) is inserted through the ear drum so that fluid can be sucked out. The tube also lets air into the inner ear allowing the ear drum to function normally. The procedure takes only a few minutes to perform but is usually done under general anesthesia in order to have a still ear during surgery for safety reasons.