What is otitis media (ear infection)?

Otitis media is infection or inflammation in the middle ear. Most kids have at least one ear infection by the time they are 3 years old. But, adults can also get ear infections.

What causes ear infections?

Inflammation in the middle ear most often starts after you’ve had a sore throat, cold, or other upper respiratory problem. The infection spreads to the middle ear and causes fluid buildup behind the eardrum. 

What are the symptoms of ear infection?

These are the most common symptoms of ear infections in adults:

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

These symptoms may look like other conditions or health problems. Always talk with your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is ear infection diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will review your health history and do a physical exam. He or she will check 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 have ear infections often, your healthcare provider may suggest having a hearing test.

How is an ear infection treated?

Your healthcare provider will figure out the best treatment based on:

  • How old you are
  • Your overall health and health history
  • How sick you are
  • How well you can handle specific medicines, procedures, or therapies
  • How long the condition is expected to last
  • Your opinion or preference

Treatment may include:

  • Antibiotics
  • Pain relievers
  • Insertion of small tubes in the eardrum for chronic ear infections 

What are the complications of an ear infection?

Untreated ear infections can lead to:

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

Can ear infections be prevented?

Cold and allergy medicines do not appear to prevent ear infections. And, currently, there is no vaccine that can prevent the disease. However, do check with your healthcare provider and make sure your vaccines are up-to-date. Living in a home where cigarettes are smoked can increase the chances of ear infections.

Key points about otitis media

  • Ear infections can affect both children and adults.
  • Pain and fever can be the most common symptoms.
  • Without treatment, permanent hearing loss may happen.
  • Take antibiotics as prescribed and finish all of the prescription. This can help prevent antibiotic resistant infections or incomplete treatment with the infection returning.

Next steps

Tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know the reason for your visit and what you want to happen.
  • Before your visit, write down questions you want answered.
  • Bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • At the visit, write down the name of a new diagnosis, and any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also write down any new instructions your provider gives you.
  • Know why a new medicine or treatment is prescribed, and how it will help you. Also know what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition can be treated in other ways.
  • Know why a test or procedure is recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure.
  • If you have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • Know how you can contact your provider if you have questions.