What is Middle Ear Infection and What Causes It?

Middle ear infections, medically known as otitis media, can be a painful and uncomfortable condition that affects the area between your eardrum and eustachian tube. This type of ear infection is especially prevalent among children, and it’s caused by a variety of factors.

Usually, middle ear infections in children develop after an upper respiratory tract infection, which can cause swelling of the lining of the nose. This swelling blocks the normal drainage of fluids in the middle ear, leading to a buildup of fluids that becomes a breeding ground for bacteria. The ear then becomes infected due to the accumulation of bacteria. 

In some cases, middle ear infections in children can be caused by viruses rather than bacteria. In other cases, young children can also develop ear infections due to their under-developed and smaller eustachian tubes that can’t efficiently drain fluids away.


Signs and Symptoms of Middle Ear Infection

  • Tugging or pulling at the ear
  • Irritability
  • Difficulty sleeping
  • Complaining about ear pains, especially when lying down
  • Difficulty hearing 
  • Loss of balance
  • Fever
  • Drainage from the ear
  • Headache
  • Loss of appetite

Treatment for Middle Ear Infection

Most middle ear infections should clear up on their own within a few days to a week and don’t require any treatment. However, if your child experiences discomfort, treatment can be sought to relieve symptoms and speed up the recovery process. Antibiotics may be indicated in specific cases depending on the age of the child, if one or both sides are involved and the degree of symptoms. For example, children suffering from an ear infection caused by bacteria will be given antibiotics. Medications such as paracetamol or ibuprofen may also be prescribed to help reduce pain and get rid of their fever.

Frequently Asked Questions

Is a middle ear infection in children an emergency?

Middle ear infections in children are generally not considered medical emergencies. It is a common condition that can resolve on its own or with medical treatment. However, if your child experiences severe symptoms or complications, it may be important to seek medical attention immediately.

  • Severe or worsening pain in the ear
  • High fever (above 101°F)
  • Headache
  • Stiff neck
  • Dizziness
  • Weakness or numbness on one side of the face
  • Discharge of fluid or pus from the ear
  • Difficulty hearing or hearing loss

How painful is a middle ear infection?

Ear pains due to middle ear infections can range from a dull continuous pain, to sharp and sudden stabbing pains.

How long can a middle ear infection last?

Most middle ear infections should clear up within a week without specific treatment. Usually after a middle ear infection, there is residual fluid which may take anything from 6 weeks to 3 months to resolve. If symptoms persist, do seek medical attention.

What does an infected middle ear look like?

An infected middle ear looks red and swollen on otoscopy. There may also be clear, yellow, or greenish drainage from the ear.