A common infection of young children, otitis media is an inflammation of the middle ear and falls under the wider group of ailments known as ear infections. The infection causes symptoms directly related to the ear, but the illness can also produce seemingly unrelated symptoms. General symptoms include irritability and inconsolable crying, especially in a young child. They also can include trouble sleeping and an increase in temperature. Pulling at the ears may be a symptom but is not a definitive indication of infection.
Otitis media can be acute, meaning it lasts for a short time and causes significant pain; or chronic, which means it lasts for a longer time or causes recurrent episodes of inflammation. Acute otitis media occurs more often than chronic otitis media. Illnesses such as colds increase the chance of developing ear infections, which are more prevalent in the winter months.
The illness can also occur in adults but is more common in children, who have shorter Eustachian tubes, the tubes that drain fluid from the middle ear to the back of the throat. Otitis media symptoms vary according to the type of infection and the age of the affected person.
Acute ear infections in infants are generally recognized when the child becomes irritable and starts to cry non-stop. The infant may also develop a temperature and have trouble getting to sleep. Parents who notice their children pulling at their ear should not necessarily take it as a sign that the child has otitis media.
Adults and older children display signs of pain in the ear, a feeling of fullness in the ear, hearing loss resulting from the inflammation, and a feeling of malaise, or general illness. Those affected may also show signs of a cold during the ear infection. Other otitis media symptoms include vomiting and diarrhea. The feeling of fullness that is one of the common otitis media symptoms results from the Eustachian tube becoming blocked, fluid building up and a viral or bacterial infection following.
Chronic otitis media symptoms may sometimes go unnoticed. The most common symptoms of chronic ear infections include earache or a feeling of pressure in the ear, fever, fussiness in a younger child, hearing loss, and pus draining from the ear. These symptoms may resolve themselves but recur in chronic cases. Despite the mild symptoms of some cases of chronic otitis media, a suspected chronic ear infection should always be investigated by a doctor. Untreated infections could result in partial or complete deafness, facial paralysis, a detrimental effect on speech development or balance, and even inflammation around the brain.