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Ear infection - acute

Mastoiditis - redness and swelling behind ear
Normal anatomy

Definition

Ear infections are one of the most common reasons parents take their children to the doctor. While there are different types of ear infections, the most common is called otitis media, which means an inflammation and infection of the middle ear. The middle ear is located just behind the eardrum.

An acute ear infection is a short and painful ear infection. For information on an ear infection that lasts a long time or comes and goes, see: Chronic ear infection.

Alternative Names

Otitis media - acute; Infection - inner ear; Middle ear infection - acute

Causes

The Eustachian tube runs from the middle of each ear to the back of the throat. This tube drains fluid normally made in the middle ear. If the Eustachian tube becomes blocked, fluid can build up. This can lead to infection.

Ear infections are common in infants and children, because the Eustachian tubes become easily clogged.

Ear infections may also occur in adults, although they are less common than in children.

Anything that causes the eustachian tubes to become swollen or blocked causes more fluids to build up in the middle ear behind the eardrum. These causes include:

Ear infections are also more likely if a child spends a lot of time drinking from a sippy cup or bottle while lying on his or her back. However, getting water in the ears will not cause an acute ear infection, unless the eardrum has a hole from a previous episode.

Acute ear infections occur most often in the winter. You cannot catch an ear infection from someone else, but a cold may spread among children and cause some of them to get ear infections.

Risk factors for acute ear infections include:

Symptoms

In infants, the main sign is often irritability and inconsolable crying. Many infants and children with an acute ear infection have a fever or trouble sleeping. Tugging on the ear is not always a sign that the child has an ear infection.

Symptoms of an acute ear infection in older children or adults include:

The ear infection may start shortly after having a cold. Sudden drainage of yellow or green fluid from the ear may mean a ruptured eardrum.

All acute ear infections include fluid behind the eardrum. You can use an electronic ear monitor, such as EarCheck, to detect this fluid at home. The device is available at pharmacies, but you still need to see your doctor to confirm any possible ear infection.

Exams and Tests

The health care provider will look inside the ears using an instrument called an otoscope. This may show:

A hearing test may be recommended if the person has a history of ear infections.

Treatment

Some ear infections will safely clear up on their own without antibiotics. Often, treating the pain and allowing the body time to heal itself is all that is needed:

All children younger than 6 months with a fever or symptoms should see the doctor. Children who are older than 6 months may be watched at home if they do not have:

If there is no improvement or symptoms get worse, schedule an appointment with your health care provider to determine whether antibiotics are needed.

ANTIBIOTICS

A virus or bacteria can cause ear infections. Antibiotics will not help an infection caused by a virus. Many health care providers no longer prescribe antibiotics for every ear infection. However, all children younger than 6 months with an ear infection are treated with antibiotics.

Your health care provider is more likely to prescribe antibiotics if:

Make sure you or your child takes the antibiotics every day and finishes all the medicine, rather than stopping when symptoms go away. If the antibiotics do not seem to be working within 48 to 72 hours, contact your doctor. You may need to switch to a different antibiotic.

Amoxicillin is commonly the first choice. Other antibiotics that may be given are azithromycin or clarithromycin, cefdinir, cefuroxime, cefpodoxime, amoxicillin clavulanate (Augmentin), clindamycin, or ceftriaxone.

Side effects of antibiotics include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Although rare, serious allergic reactions may also occur.

Some children who have repeat infections that seem to go away in between may receive a smaller, daily dose of antibiotics to prevent new infections.

SURGERY

If an infection does not go away with the usual medical treatment, or if a child has many ear infections over a short period of time, the doctor may recommend ear tubes.

If the adenoids are enlarged, surgical removal of the adenoids may be considered, especially if you continue to have ear infections. Removing tonsils does not seem to help with ear infections.

Outlook (Prognosis)

Ear infections can be treated but may occur again in the future. They can be quite painful. If you or your child are prescribed an antibiotic, it is important to finish all your medication as instructed.

Possible Complications

Generally, an ear infection is a minor medical problem that gets better without complications. Most children will have minor, short-term hearing loss during and right after an ear infection. This is due to fluid lingering in the ear.

Rarely, a more serious infection may develop, such as

Fluid can remain behind the eardrums even after the infection has cleared for weeks or even months.. See also: Otitis media with effusion

Other potential complications include:

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call your child's doctor if:

For a child younger than 6 months, let the doctor know right away if the child has a fever, even if no other symptoms are present.

Prevention

You can reduce your child's risk of ear infections with the following practices:

References

Tähtinen PA, Laine MK, Huovinen P, Jalava J, Ruuskanen O, Ruohola A. A placebo-controlled trial of antimicrobial treatment for acute otitis media. N Engl J Med. 2011 Jan 13;364(2):116-26.

Hoberman A, Paradise JL, Rockette HE, Shaikh N, Wald ER, Kearney DH, et al. Treatment of acute otitis media in children under 2 years of age. N Engl J Med. 2011 Jan 13;364(2):105-15.

Coker TR, Chan LS, Newberry SJ, Limbos MA, Suttorp MJ, Shekelle PG, et al. Diagnosis, microbial epidemiology, and antibiotic treatment of acute otitis mediain children: a systematic review. JAMA. 2010 Nov 17;304(19):2161-9.

Koopman L, Hoes AW, Glasziou PP, Cees L, Appelman L, Burke P, et al. Antibiotic therapy to prevent the development of asymptomatic middle ear effusion in children with acute otitis media: a meta-analysis of individual patient data. Arch Otolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2008;134:128-132.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Recommended immunization schedules for persons aged 0-18 years---United States, 2011. MMWR. 2011;60(5).


Review Date: 5/16/2012
Reviewed By: Neil K. Kaneshiro, MD, MHA, Clinical Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc.