Middle ear infection (otitis media)

Middle ear infections can be categorized as acute, serous, or chronic.

Common symptoms of acute otitis media are fever, pain, and irritability. Other symptoms can include difficulty sleeping, tugging on the ear, and loss of or decreased hearing.

In children, the ear infection often begins after the child has had a cold for several days.

It's more difficult to detect signs of ear infection in young babies. You may notice a change in mood or feeding, and the infant will most likely have a fever. Because ear infections are usually painful, many babies will be irritable.

If fluid builds up in the ear, the infection is called serous otitis media.(That's serous, referring to fluid, not serious.) This occurs when the eustachian tube becomes blocked, and pressure in the middle ear drops. Under these circumstances, the child might experience hearing loss or impairment in the infected ear. This is usually only temporary. While this is usually no cause for alarm, anyone who experiences hearing loss or impairment should consult their doctor.

Chronic otitis media refers to a long-lasting ear infection. This is often complicated by (or caused by) a hole in the eardrum (perforation) from any one of the following:

  • acute infection
  • blocked eustachian tube
  • heat or chemical burns
  • injury from sudden air pressure changes
  • injury from an object entering the ear

Chronic ear infections often flare up after a cold, or, if the eardrum is perforated, when water enters the ear during swimming or bathing. Repeated or long-lasting infections can destroy the small bones in the middle ear, leading to long-term hearing loss. More serious complications include spread to nearby organs, appearing as inflammation of the inner ear, facial paralysis, and brain infections.

Written and reviewed by the MediResource Clinical Team