logo


Source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention


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 (AOM)
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 (OME)
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-ells 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

Acute otitis media (AOM)

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

Otitis media with effusion (OME)

  • Problems with hearing

See a Healthcare Provider if You or Your Child has:

  • Discharge of blood or pus from the ears
  • Been diagnosed with an ear infection and symptoms do not improve, or worsen

Your healthcare provider can determine what kind of ear infection is present and if treatment is needed. If your child is younger than three months of age and has a fever, it’s important to always call your healthcare provider right away.

How to Feel Better

Rest, over-the-counter medicines and other self-care methods may help you or your child feel better. Remember, always use over-the-counter products as directed. Many over-the-counter products are not recommended for children younger than certain ages.

Preventing Ear Infections

  • Avoid smoking or exposure to second hand smoke and do not expose children to second hand smoke
  • Avoid exposure to air pollution
  • Keep you and your child up to date with recommended immunizations
  • Breastfeed your baby for 12 months or more if possible
  • Bottle feed your baby in the upright position

For more information about ear infections, visit the CDC website at www.cdc.gov.