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Ear Infections and Language Development

Part 1: What is Otitis Media?


Updated February 01, 2006

Otitis media, an inflammation of the middle ear (behind the eardrum), is one of the most common illnesses of childhood. There are two different types of otitis media. Either can occur in one or both ears.
  • Acute otitis media, which is also called an ear infection, is an infection of the middle ear. Fluid in the middle ear may remain even after an infection is gone.

  • Otitis media with effusion, also called middle ear fluid, is fluid that is not infected. When a child has a cold, a small tube between the ear and the throat can become blocked, causing fluid to build up in the middle ear.

Most children will have at least one episode of otitis media by one year of age. And 10– 20 percent of children will have otitis media three or more times, with fluid lasting an average of one month each time. Persistent ear fluid is more common in children under two years, but it can be seen in children older than two.

The middle ear space behind the eardrum usually contains air. When there is fluid in this space, it can cause the bones in the middle ear not to vibrate properly. This may cause a mild, temporary hearing loss. The mild hearing loss lasts until the fluid is gone. Because this can happen when your child is learning to speak, families and health care providers may have concerns. If there are concerns, a hearing evaluation and/ or speech and language evaluation may be appropriate.

What are signs of Otitis Media?

  • Child pulls on ear
  • Child says ear hurts
  • Drainage from ear
  • Fever (acute otitis media)
  • Irritability
  • Poor sleep

A child may have all, some, or none of these symptoms and still have otitis media. Otitis media frequently occurs when a child has a cold. When a child has otitis media with effusion, most of the time there are no symptoms. Ear infections are best detected by your child's health care provider. Contact your health care provider if you think your child may be sick.

How is Otitis Media treated?

Acute otitis media (ear infections) can be treated by:

  • Antibiotics prescribed by your health care provider. Medicine should be given until it is gone. Fever and pain should decrease within two days.
  • Surgery to put a tube in a child's ear if your child has a lot of ear infections. This surgery is done by an ear, nose, and throat doctor. This tube allows air to enter the middle ear space. This, in turn, helps the lining of the middle ear return to normal and helps prevent new infections. The tube generally stays in place for six to twelve months and falls out by itself.

Otitis media with effusion (fluid) can be treated by:

  • Waiting for the fluid to go away. For 60– 80 percent of children, middle ear fluid will go away by itself in three months. For 85 percent of children, fluid will go away by itself in six months. A health care provider should check a child's ears regularly during this period.
  • Antibiotics may help reduce middle ear fluid in a small number of cases.
  • Surgery to put a tube in the child's ear if fluid continues for four to six months in both ears.

Talk with your child's health care provider about these treatments. It is important to keep follow- up appointments.

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