Ear Infection (Otitis Media)

Otitis media is a condition most commonly known as an ear infection. An infection can occur in one ear at a time or in both ears at the same time.

This condition is one of the most common childhood infections. Any child or adult can develop an ear infection at any time of the year.

Patients can be seen by Texas Children's experts in Ear Nose and Throat (Otolaryngology).

Causes & Risk Factors

Otitis Media is not contagious and there is not one specific cause.

Many situations can contribute to developing an infection, such as:

  • Fluid and/or wax buildup in the middle ear
  • Bacterial upper respiratory infection
  • Allergies

Symptoms & Types

Symptoms may include:

  • Fluid drainage from one or both ears
  • Visible buildup of ear wax
  • Irritability
  • Fever
  • Sleeplessness
  • Cough
  • Nasal discharge

Diagnosis & Tests

Diagnosis is confirmed through a visual exam of the ear. A medical professional will use an otoscope to look into the patient’s ear. The doctor will look for redness, a swollen eardrum, excessive fluid or bulging of the inner ear and ear drum.

In some patients, the infection might clear on its own. Antibiotics are also used very frequently to treat ear infections.

Sometimes a doctor will recommend surgery to insert ear tubes in the affected ear or ears. Surgery is for patients that meet some of the following criteria:

  • No improvement with antibiotic treatments
  • More than 6 infections in one ear
  • Greater than 30 decibel conductive hearing loss in both ears
  • Speech/language or learning delays or disabilities
  • Special conditions like down syndrome or a cleft pallet

Most ear tube candidates are between 6 months and 1 year old.

Treatment & Care

Treatment can include surgery to insert ear tubes while the patient is under general anesthesia.

The surgeon uses a microscope to make a small cut directly in the ear drum. After the cut is made, any extra fluid or wax is removed from the ear. Then the surgeon inserts the silicon, pressure-equalizing tube directly in the ear drum. The process is then repeated, if necessary, in the other ear. The procedure is similar to fastening a button through a button hole.

The surgery lasts 3 or 4 minutes per ear. There are no scars.

On average, the tubes stay in place for about 9 months and then fall out on their own. The length of time the tube stays in place depends on how fast the patient’s ear drum grows.

Living & Managing

A successful ear tube surgery is easily performed in one day. Most of the time the patient will feel well enough to eat and play as normal on the same day as surgery.

After surgery, most patients can expect the following results over time:

  • Fewer ear infections
  • Less severe ear infections
  • Reduced fluid buildup
  • Reduced need for antibiotics
  • Better hearing
  • Improved language acquisition
  • Increase in concentration skills and better behavior

Ear Tube Surgery Frequently Asked Questions: 

  • Can the patient take a bath? Yes, but it is recommended that the patient not put his or her head under water. Use cotton balls covered in petroleum jelly in the ear or ear plugs to prevent water from getting in the ear.
  • Can the patient go swimming? Do not allow the patient to go swimming until you receive permission from the doctor. Talk to your doctor about the use of ear plugs when swimming.
  • Is it safe to take plane trip? Yes. Ear tubes do not affect air travel. Actually, the patient might be more comfortable on planes after ear tube surgery since the tubes help keep the pressure the same inside and outside the ear.