Otitis Media | Symptoms & Causes | Diagnosis

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Otitis Media

What is Otitis Media?

Otitis media is a group of inflammatory diseases of the middle ear. The two main types are acute otitis media (AOM) and otitis media with effusion (OME). AOM is an infection of rapid onset that usually presents with ear pain. In young children this may result in pulling at the ear, increased crying, and poor sleep.


The common cause of all forms of otitis media is dysfunction of the Eustachian tube. This is usually due to inflammation of the mucous membranes in the nasopharynx, which can be caused by a viral upper respiratory tract infection (URTI), strep throat, or possibly by allergies.

By reflux or aspiration of unwanted secretions from the nasopharynx into the normally sterile middle-ear space, the fluid may then become infected

Diagnosis & Tests

Acute otitis media in children with moderate to severe bulging of the tympanic membrane or new onset of otorrhea (drainage) is not due to external otitis. Also, the diagnosis may be made in children who have mild bulging of the ear drum and recent onset of ear pain (less than 48 hours) or intense erythema (redness) of the ear drum.

To confirm the diagnosis, middle-ear effusion and inflammation of the eardrum have to be identified; signs of these are fullness, bulging, cloudiness and redness of the eardrum. It is important to attempt to differentiate between acute otitis media and otitis media with effusion (OME), as antibiotics are not recommended for OME. It has been suggested that bulging of the tympanic membrane is the best sign to differentiate AOM from OME, with a bulging of the membrane suggesting AOM rather than OME.

Viral otitis may result in blisters on the external side of the tympanic membrane, which is called bullous myringitis (myringa being Latin for "eardrum").

However, sometimes even examination of the eardrum may not be able to confirm the diagnosis, especially if the canal is small. If wax in the ear canal obscures a clear view of the eardrum it should be removed using a blunt cerumen curette or a wire loop. Also, an upset young child's crying can cause the eardrum to look inflamed due to distension of the small blood vessels on it, mimicking the redness associated with otitis media.

Prevention & Risk Factors

AOM is far less common in breastfed infants than in formula-fed infants, and the greatest protection is associated with exclusive breastfeeding (no formula use) for the first six months of life. A longer duration of breastfeeding is correlated with a longer protective effect.

Pneumococcal conjugate vaccines (PCV) in early infancy decrease the risk of acute otitis media in healthy infants. PCV is recommended for all children, and, if implemented broadly, PCV would have a significant public health benefit. Influenza vaccination in children appears to reduce rates of AOM by 4% and the use of antibiotics by 11% over 6 months. However, the vaccine resulted in increased adverse-effects such as fever and runny nose. The small reduction in AOM may not justify the side effects and inconvenience of influenza vaccination every year for this purpose alone. PCV does not appear to decrease the risk of otitis media when given to high-risk infants or for older children who have previously experienced otitis media.

Risk factors such as season, allergy predisposition and presence of older siblings are known to be determinants of recurrent otitis media and persistent middle-ear effusions (MEE). History of recurrence, environmental exposure to tobacco smoke, use of daycare, and lack of breastfeeding have all been associated with increased risk of development, recurrence, and persistent MEE. Pacifier use has been associated with more frequent episodes of AOM.

Treatments & Therapies

A treatment option for chronic suppurative otitis media with discharge is topical antibiotics. A Cochrane review found that topical quinolone antibiotics can improve discharge better than oral antibiotics. Safety is not really clear.

Tympanostomy tubeTympanostomy tubes (also called "grommets") are recommended with three or more episodes of acute otitis media in 6 months or four or more in a year, with at least one episode or more attacks in the preceding 6 months. There is tentative evidence that children with recurrent acute otitis media (AOM) who receive tubes have a modest improvement in the number of further AOM episodes (around one fewer episode at six months and less of an improvement at 12 months following the tubes being inserted). Evidence does not support an effect on long-term hearing or language development. A common complication of having a tympanostomy tube is otorrhea, which is a discharge from the ear. The risk of persistent tympanic membrane perforation after children have grommets inserted may be low. It is still uncertain whether or not grommets are more effective than a course of antibiotics.

Oral antibiotics should not be used to treat uncomplicated acute tympanostomy tube otorrhea. They are not sufficient for the bacteria that cause this condition and have side effects including increased risk of opportunistic infection. In contrast, topical antibiotic eardrops are useful.