Middle ear infection (otitis media)

Otitis media is often treated with antibiotics. To lower the chances of the infection returning, it's very important to take the antibiotics regularly and finish the entire course of treatment even if the symptoms improve quickly (if you or your child experience bothersome side effects from the antibiotic, contact your pharmacist or doctor). Some ear infections are caused by viruses and some infections get better without antibiotic treatment.

A short period of watchful waiting for 2 to 3 days rather than antibiotics may be appropriate for children over 6 months of age with minimal symptoms who do not have recurrent infections or structural differences in their ears, and are not at high risk for complications. There are several antibiotics that may be used to treat otitis media. When deciding which antibiotic is the best one, the doctor will consider the medication allergy history, whether the infections are recurrent, and whether bacteria may be resistant to certain antibiotics. Treatment is usually given for 5 to 10 days depending on age and on the severity of the infection.

Pain relievers (e.g., acetaminophen, ibuprofen) are recommended to ease the pain of the infection and to improve comfort whether or not antibiotics are used. Holding warm cloths over the sore ear may also provide some relief.

For adults, decongestants may help to reduce the feeling of plugged ears and antihistamines may help people who have allergies. But neither of these medications will cure the ear infection. Decongestants and antihistamines are not recommended for children since there is little evidence that they are helpful and they can cause side effects, some of which can be serious.

Children with repeated infections may need to have tympanostomy tubes inserted in their eardrums. These tubes help fluid to drain and help keep the pressure normal on either side of the eardrum.

If the child has a permanent hole in his or her eardrum that's causing chronic otitis media, the eardrum itself may be repaired by a procedure called a tympanoplasty.

It's hard to prevent ear infections since many children, especially those who attend daycare, are susceptible to colds. Careful hand-washing regimens can help reduce the chance of catching colds, so it's important to remind your kids to wash up as often as possible.

Breast-feeding seems to lower the chances of developing ear infections among infants and children by helping to boost their immunity. Immunization with the pneumococcal vaccine can lessen the likelihood of getting ear infections caused by certain types of bacteria. The flu vaccine can also help reduce the chances of an ear infection.

Written and reviewed by the MediResource Clinical Team