Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection)

For information about COVID-19 and ear infections, and the differences between the two, please visit our COVID-19 and Ear Infection page.

Otitis media is the medical term for a painful infection or inflammation in the middle ear. Most children have at least one middle ear infection by the time they are 3 years old. While not as common, adults can get these ear infections, too.

Otitis media occurs when the eustachian tubes, which connect the middle ear to the nose, get blocked with fluid. Mucus, pus, and bacteria can also build up behind the eardrum, causing pressure and pain. This type of infection happens more often in young children because their eustachian tubes are smaller, so it’s easier for fluid to get trapped in the middle ear.

Inflammation in the middle ear most often starts after you’ve had a sore throat, cold, or other upper respiratory problem like a sinus infection.

It’s important to get treatment for an ear infection because, if left untreated, it can lead to more serious conditions, including:

  • Infection in other parts of the head
  • Ruptured eardrum
  • Permanent hearing loss
  • Problems with speech and language

The ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialists in the Division of Otolaryngology – Head and Neck Surgery at Cooper University Health Care are experts in diagnosing and treating middle ear infections (otitis media) in patients of all ages.

Why Choose Cooper to Treat Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection)

Cooper has a team of fellowship-trained otolaryngologists (ENT specialists) who are highly qualified to diagnose and treat all the conditions that can affect the ears, nose and throat, and they have extensive experience treating middle ear infections in children and adults.

Risk Factors for Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection)

The most common risk factor for developing a middle ear infection is having a cold, sore throat or other upper respiratory infection. Other factors that increase the chances of middle ear infections include:

  • Age (children between 6 and 36 months are most likely to get ear infections)
  • Attending daycare
  • A history of nasal allergies like hay fever (also called allergic rhinitis)
  • Living in a home where cigarettes are smoked
  • Having family members who get multiple ear infections (studies show a genetic connection for otitis media)
  • Using a pacifier
  • A history of gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD)

Symptoms of Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection)

These are the most common symptoms of middle ear infections:

  • Ear pain
  • Feeling of fullness in the ear
  • Fluid draining from the ear(s)
  • Fever
  • Hearing loss

How Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection) Is Diagnosed

After reviewing your (or your child’s) health history, your healthcare provider will perform a physical exam, including a check of the outer ear(s) and the eardrum(s) using an otoscope.

The otoscope is a lighted tool that lets the healthcare provider see inside the ear. A pneumatic otoscope blows a puff of air into the ear to test eardrum movement. When there is fluid or infection in the middle ear, movement is decreased.

Your provider may also do a tympanometry. This is a test that directs air and sound to the middle ear.

If you or your child has frequent ear infections, your healthcare provider may suggest having a hearing test to make sure your hearing hasn’t been affected.

How Otitis Media (Middle Ear Infection) Is Treated

Treatment depends on the patient’s age, overall health, and the severity of the condition. Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics (oral or ear drops) if a bacterial infection is present
  • Pain relievers
  • Insertion of small tubes in the eardrum for chronic ear infections 

It’s important to know that most ear infections clear up on their own. Because antibiotics tend to be overused for treating ear infections, and because children may become resistant to the antibiotics most commonly used to treat otitis media, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians recommend watchful waiting for 72 hours if:

  • Your child is older than 6 months
  • Your child is otherwise healthy
  • Your child has mild symptoms or an unclear diagnosis

Taking cold and allergy medicines do not appear to prevent ear infections. And, currently, there is no vaccine that can prevent the disease. Do, however, check with your (or your child’s) healthcare provider to make sure your vaccines are up-to-date.

Contact Us

To learn more about the services available in the Division of Otolaryngology—Head and Neck Surgery or to schedule an appointment, please call 856.342.3113