Otitis media

Introduction

Otitis media is an infection of the middle ear common in younger children. 

Most ear infections occur in infants aged 6-18 months, though anyone can get an ear infection. For reasons that are unclear they are more common in boys than girls.

Signs that your child might have an ear infection include:

  • pulling, tugging, or rubbing their ear
  • a high temperature (38°C or above)
  • irritability
  • poor feeding
  • restlessness at night
  • coughing
  • runny nose
  • unresponsiveness to quiet sounds
  • loss of balance

Read more about the signs and symptoms of otitis media.

When to seek medical advice

Most ear infections clear up quickly so it is not always necessary to see your GP.

However, it is recommended that you contact your GP for advice if:

  • symptoms show no sign of improvement after 24 hours
  • your child seems to be in a lot of pain
  • you notice fluid coming from the ear

You should also contact your GP if your child is more vulnerable to the effects of infection, for example due to certain medical conditions.

Treating an ear infection

Most ear infections clear up within a couple of days. Paracetamol or ibuprofen (appropriate for the child's age) can be used to relieve pain and high temperature.

Antibiotics are usually only required if symptoms persist or are particularly severe.

Read more about the treatment of otitis media.

What causes an ear infection?

The middle ear is directly behind the eardrum. It is made up of three tiny lever-like bones that carry sound vibrations from the eardrum to the inner ear.

Most cases of otitis media are caused by a bacterial or viral infection. Often an infection of the respiratory tract (sinuses, throat, airways or lungs) such as the cold or flu can spread into the middle ear.

Younger children are particularly vulnerable to this type of infection as their middle ear is smaller and narrower than an adults' which makes it easier for an infection to take hold.

The risk of developing an ear infection is increased if your child:

  • attends a nursery or day care centre – this increases exposure to infection from other children
  • is exposed to passive smoking
  • is not breastfed

Read more about the causes of ear infection.

Complications

Complications of ear infections are uncommon but when they do occur they can be troublesome and include:

  • infection spreading into the bones underneath the ear (the mastoids) which is known as mastoiditis
  • the infection spreads into the protective membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord (the meninges), which is known as meningitis

Read more about the complications of otitis media.

Last updated: 28 December 2012

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