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Otitis Media

With 75% of cases occurring in children under the age of ten, otitis media is an inflammation or infection estimated to affect at least one in four youngsters before they reach double figures. Infants between six and 15 months old are most commonly affected, but adults can also suffer from otitis media. Most cases pass within a few days without any need to consult a GP, but if you or your child suffer from an underlying health condition or see no signs of improvement within a week, a GP should be contacted.


If your child is suffering from otitis media, you may notice some of the following signs:

  • Pulling, tugging or rubbing of the ear
  • Feverish temperature
  • Poor feeding
  • Restlessness when trying to sleep
  • Irritability
  • A lack of response to quiet sounds
  • Vomiting and/or diarrhoea
  • Earache
  • Runny nose
  • Loss of balance

In some cases, otitis media sufferers may develop a hole in their eardrum, known as a perforation. This will allow pus to run out of the ear, relieving the earache symptom.

Causes and triggers

Most middle ear infections are caused by a bacterial infection that spreads into the middle ear, often as a result of mucus build up from a cold or flu. This mucus gets trapped in the middle ear, causing the Eustachian tube - responsible for regulating air pressure in the middle ear - to become swollen. The Eustachian tube can also be blocked by an enlarged adenoid, the soft tissue at the back of the nose. If the adenoid causes persistent ear infections, it can be permanently removed.

Because children's Eustachian tubes are smaller than adults and more prone tp swelling of the adenoids, they are more susceptible to otitis media. With this mind, several factors may conspire to trigger the condition:

  • Frequent nose or throat infections
  • Attending a nursery where infection exposure is likely to be higher.
  • Exposure to tobacco smoke (passive smoking).
  • Feeding children when they're flat on their back.
  • Having a cleft palate.
  • Having Down syndrome.


If you suspect that you or your child has otitis media, it can normally be detected by using an otoscope, a medical device that has a magnifying glass attached to one end so your GP can look inside your ear. The GP will also be able to look for a bulging ear drum, an unusual colour or any perforations in the eardrum.

When the infection has been diagnosed, many sufferers will find that they are simply asked to take antibiotics and painkillers.

Antibiotics will normally only be considered if your child has more severe symptoms such as earache and/or ear discharge.

If you suspect that you or your child has otitis media, always consult a medical professional. For an overview of ear infections or to learn more about other ear conditions, visit our resources, otitis externa, mastoiditis or labyrinthitis pages.