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Ear Infection (Acute Otitis Media)


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Jul 2020| Content last modified Jul 2020
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Your middle ear is a hollow space behind your eardrum. The middle ear contains 3 tiny bones that send your eardrum's vibrations to the nerves in your inner ear.

Inside the Ear

Inside the Ear

What is an ear infection ?

Different parts of your ear can get infected, but you're most likely to have an infection in your middle ear. "Media" means middle, and "otitis" means inflamed ear, so doctors call this infection otitis media. It's "acute" when it happens quickly and gets better quickly. If the infection doesn't go away or keeps coming back, it's called a chronic ear infection.

  • Ear infections can happen at any age but are most common in children

  • They're usually triggered by a cold or allergies

  • The infected ear hurts, and you may not be able to hear as well

  • Most ear infections get better on their own, but doctors will prescribe antibiotics for severe infections or an infection that won't go away on its own

What causes acute ear infections?

Acute ear infections are caused by a virus or bacteria. Having a common cold or allergies can lead to an ear infection.

The infection fills the middle ear with fluid. With a bacterial infection, the fluid may be pus.

What are the symptoms of an acute ear infection?

The most common symptoms are:

  • Ear pain

  • Hearing loss

Infants may be cranky or have difficulty sleeping.

Young children may pull on their ear, have a fever, feel sick to their stomach, throw up, or have diarrhea.

If the infection causes a hole in the eardrum (eardrum perforation), fluid may drain from the ear. This often relieves the pain.

What are the complications of an ear infection?

Most people don't have complications. Children who get a lot of ear infections may have:

Very rarely, a bacterial infection can spread into the nearby skull bone or into the brain.

How can doctors tell if I have an ear infection?

Doctors will use a handheld light to check if:

  • Your eardrum is bulging or red

  • There's fluid behind your eardrum

How do doctors treat acute ear infections?

Most acute ear infections go away with no treatment, but doctors may give you:

  • Antibiotics

  • Pain medicine, such as acetaminophen or ibuprofen

  • For adults, sometimes decongestant spray or pills

  • For people with allergies, antihistamine pills

If the ear pain is severe, doctors may need to drain fluid from your middle ear. They may make a small hole in the eardrum to drain the fluid or place tubes in the eardrum to keep fluid draining properly.

How can I limit the risk of my children getting ear infections?

  • Make sure your children get their routine childhood vaccinations

  • Don't let infants drink from a bottle while lying down or take a bottle to bed with them

  • Don't smoke in the house or around children

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