Otitis media means inflammation of the middle ear (the space behind the ear drum). Many different conditions are lumped together under the term otitis media - including infections due to a number of different viruses or bacteria, or the presence of different types of uninfected fluid. The presence of middle ear fluid and redness or inflammation of the ear drum is usually referred to as acute otitis media, is typically due to bacterial infection, and is usually treated with antibiotics. Chronic otitis media means long-standing middle ear fluid (with or without infection). Fluid in the ear, without signs of infection or inflammation, is usually called otitis media with effusion or serous otitis media.
Two reasons are commonly cited as the cause for infants and children having more problems than older children or adults. First, their immune system does not fight the viral and bacterial infections of the respiratory (or gastrointestinal) tract as effectively. This usually improves to close to adult capability by four years of age. Second, the structure of the eustachian tube, in young children, is felt to make fluid and infections more likely due to a straighter angle and a shorter length. Some experts suggest that perhaps 70 percent of the ear problems in the US are related to exposure to other children. Many, but not all, children will have a marked reduction in ear and nasal infections when placed in a care situation with few children (less than 3-7).
The majority of children with otitis media outgrow the problem sometime between two and three years old. Well over 90 percent improve by school age. Only a very small percent of children continue to have problems into adolescence. The presence of other problems, such a a history of cleft palate or adenoid disease may prolong middle ear infections.
In general, tonsil problems do not affect the health of the middle ear, and do not cause otitis media. An occasional case of markedly enlarged tonsils may cause enough problems to affect the presence or clearance of middle ear disease. The adenoids act somewhat like a sponge in the back of the nose, and appear to be a reservoir for the bacteria that might cause ear infections. Additionally, some cases of adenoidal enlargement seem to be related to middle ear disease. Therefore, selected cases of otitis media may be significantly improved with adenoid removal (adenoidectomy). Adenoidectomy is commonly recommended in children who continue to have ear problems after one or two sets of tympanostomy tubes have extruded. We will also often recommend adenoidectomy in young children with unrelenting otitis media who have signs of posterior nasal obstruction (presumably due to enlarged adenoids) or who have frequent or chronic rhinorrhea (nasal discharge).
All children with middle ear infection or fluid have some degree of hearing loss. The average hearing loss in ears with fluid is 24 decibels, roughly equivalent to wearing ear plugs and about the level of the very softest of whispers. Thicker fluid can be associated with much more loss - up to 45 decibels (the range of conversational speech). Misunderstanding speech is a more common problem that not hearing it at all. The most commonly cited adverse effect of such hearing loss is said to be the possibility of delayed speech and language skills, a problem that is generally reversible by correcting the problem. There may be a permanent loss of an ability to consistently understand speech in a noisy environment (such as a classroom) when a child has long-standing hearing loss due to ear fluid or other causes. Draining the fluid (as with ear tubes) immediately restores the hearing.
Otitis media can be very easy or very difficult to diagnose - depending on the patient. The diagnosis of acute otitis media requires the presence of fluid and the presence of redness or inflammation of the ear drum. Otitis media with effusion (also known as ear fluid) has fluid but no inflammation. Small ear canals and ear drums (such as in infants or Down syndrome children) make the diagnosis more difficult as does the presence of ear wax or other debris. Crying will cause the face and ear drums to turn red and make the diagnosis even more difficult. Irritability of the child, poor sleeping, or rubbing the ears does not necessarily mean that there are significant ear problems or infections in need of antibiotics. Some cases of ear fluid are difficult to diagnosis because the fluid behind the ear drum is very similar to the color of the drum itself.
The only definitive way to tell what the germs are in ear problems is to culture the material behind the ear drum (a procedure call tympanocentesis), which requires making a hole in the ear drum with a needle, small knife, or a laser. Because of the discomfort, this is recommended only in selected cases. However, subsequent persistent infections can be a reason for such cultures. Since the bacteria usually come from the nasal cavity, cultures of the back of the nose (nasopharynx) are not completely, predictive.
When ear fluid hasn't cleared for a long period of time, tympanostomy tubes are placed in the child's ear. Click here to learn more about tympanostomy tubes.
Pediatric Ear, Nose and Throat Clinic
6400 Fannin St. Suite, 2700
Houston, Texas 77030
Phone: (713) 486-5000
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