Ear Infections

Overview of Ear Infections

There are three main kinds of ear infections, which are called acute otitis (oh-TIE-tus) media (AOM), otitis media with effusion (uh-FEW-zhun) (OME), and otitis externa (Swimmer’s Ear). Sometimes ear infections can be painful and may even need antibiotics. Your healthcare provider will be able to determine what kind of ear infection you or your child has and if antibiotics would help.

Acute otitis media

The type of ear infection that is usually painful and may improve with antibiotic treatment is called acute otitis (oh-TIE-tus) media, or AOM. Symptoms of AOM include pain, redness of the eardrum, pus in the ear, and fever. Children may pull on the affected ear, and infants or toddlers may be irritable. Antibiotics are often prescribed to children for AOM, but are not always necessary.

Otitis media with effusion

Otitis media with effusion (uh-FEW-zhun), or OME, is a build up of fluid in the middle ear without signs and symptoms of acute infection (pain, redness of the eardrum, pus, and fever). OME is more common than AOM, and may be caused by viral upper respiratory infections, allergies, or exposure to irritants (such as cigarette smoke). The build up of fluid in the middle ear does not usually cause pain and almost always goes away on its own. OME will not usually benefit from antibiotic treatment.

Otitis externa (Swimmer’s Ear)

Otitis externa, more commonly known as Swimmer’s Ear, is an infection of the ear and/or outer ear canal. It can cause the ear to itch or become red and swollen so that touching of or pressure on the ear is very painful. There may also be pus that drains from the ear. Antibiotics are usually needed to treat otitis externa.  

Causes of Ear Infections

Acute otitis media (AOM)

AOM is often caused by bacteria, but can also be caused by viruses. The bacteria that usually cause AOM are Streptococcus pneumoniae (strep-toh-KOK-us KNEW-moh-NEE-ay), Haemophilus influenzae (he-MO-fill-us in-flu-EN-zay), and Moraxella catarrhalis (more-ax-EL-la ka-tar-HUL-iss). The viruses that most commonly cause AOM are respiratory syncytial (sin-SIH-shull) virus (RSV), rhinoviruses, influenza viruses, and adenoviruses.

Otitis media with effusion (OME)

The part of the ear that gets blocked by fluid is called the eustachian (you-STAY-shun) tube, which connects the inside of the ear to the back of the throat. Fluid may build up in the middle ear for several reasons. When you or your child has a cold, the middle ear can get filled with fluid just as the nose does – it just doesn’t run out as easily from the middle ear. Sometimes the fluid becomes infected, leading to AOM. After an episode of AOM has been treated with antibiotics or has resolved on its own, fluid may remain in the middle ear and may take a month or longer to go away.  

Signs and Symptoms of Ear Infections

  • Pulling at ears
  • Excessive crying
  • Fluid draining from ears
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Fever
  • Headaches
  • Problems with hearing
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty balancing
  • Problems with hearing