Part of the TeachMe Series

Acute Otitis Media

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Original Author(s): Aimee Rowe
Last updated: March 1, 2020
Revisions: 8

Original Author(s): Aimee Rowe
Last updated: March 1, 2020
Revisions: 8

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Acute Otitis Media (AOM) presents over a course of days to weeks, typically in young children, characterised by severe pain and visible inflammation of the tympanic membrane. The patient may also have systemic features, such as fever and malaise.

Although AOM is a common condition in young children, it can affect all age groups, including neonates. Importantly, however, in school age children recurrent episodes can lead to time out of education and the potential to develop chronic issues, such as hearing loss and developmental delay.

More than two thirds of children will have had at least a single episode of acute otitis media by age 3.


Bacterial infection of the middle ear results from nasopharyngeal organisms migrating via the eustachian tube.

The anatomy of the eustachian tube in younger children is more horizontal, only becoming more oblique as the child grows. Hence, it is less prone to close during episodes of increased pressure, such as coughing and sneezing, meaning bacteria are more likely to be forced into the middle ear during a concurrent upper respiratory tract infection.

Common causative organisms include Haemophilus influenzae, Streptococcus pneumoniae, Moraxella catarrhalis, and Streptococcus pyogenes, all common upper respiratory tract microbiota. Common viral pathogens are respiratory syncytial virus (RSV) and rhinovirus.

Figure 1 – The middle ear, from tympanic membrane to oval window

Risk Factors

Risk factors for AOM include age (peak age 6-24 months), parenteral / passive smoking, previous URTIs, the presence of enlarged adenoids, children who bottle feed or use a dummy (breast feeding is protective), and GORD and raised ­BMI (in adults)

Clinical Features

Figure 2 – An erythematous Tympanic Membrane in AOM, as viewed on otoscope

Common symptoms of AOM include pain, malaise, fever, and coryzal symptoms, lasting for a few days. Pain can be difficult to interpret in young children, but they may tug at or cradle the ear that hurts, appear irritable, disinterested in food or have vomiting.

On otoscopy, the tympanic membrane (TM) will look erythematous and may be bulging. If this fluid pressure has perforated the TM*, there may be a small tear visible with purulent discharge in the auditory canal. Patients may have a conductive hearing loss or a cervical lymphadenopathy.

It is important to test and document the function of the facial nerve (due to its anatomical course through the middle ear). Examination should also include checking for any intracranial complications, cervical lymphadenopathy, and signs of infection in the throat and oral cavity.

*Any extreme pain that suddenly resolves, followed by ear discharge is suggestive of a ruptured tympanic membrane.

Differential Diagnoses

The main differentials for AOM are Chronic Suppurative Otitis Media (CSOM), Otitis Media with Effusion (OME), and Otitis Externa (OE).

Less common differentials include meningitis, mastoiditis, intra-cranial extension of infection, intra-cranial abscess, or head and neck malignancies (in adults, especially with a smoking or alcohol history).


Most cases can be diagnosed clinically; blood tests, such as FBC and CRP, will help confirm an infective picture and can be useful to gauge response to treatment. Any discharge should be sent for fluid culture, and blood cultures should be considered if patient showing signs of sepsis.


The majority of cases of acute otitis media will resolve spontaneously within 24 hours, nearly all within 3 days.

All patients should be treated with simple analgesics in the first instance. There is no need to treat with antibiotics in most cases and a ‘watch and wait’ approach can be taken provided there are no worrying features (as discussed below).

Anti-microbial Management

Antibiotics should be avoided unless significant deterioration or disease progression is seen; oral antibiotics can be considered (as per local guidelines) if:

  • Systemically unwell children not requiring admission
  • Known risk factors for complications, such as congenital heart disease or immunosuppression
  • Unwell for 4 days or more without improvement, with clinical features consistent with acute otitis media
  • Discharge from the ear (ensure swabs are taken prior to commencing antibiotic therapy)
  • Systemically unwell adult, provided not septic and with no signs of complications

Inpatient admission should be considered for all children under 3 months with a temperature >38c, or aged 3-6 months with a temperature >39c, for further assessment.

Also, consider admission for those with evidence of an AOM complication or the systemically unwell child. Patients with a cochlear implant will need to be seen by a specialist and may require inpatient treatment.


Varying complications of AOM can include mastoiditits, meningitis, facial nerve paresis, intracranial abscess, sigmoid sinus thrombosis, and Chronic Otitis Media.


One of the most important complications to consider is mastoiditis; the spread of infection into the mastoid air cells. It presents clinically as a boggy, erythematous swelling behind the ear, which if left untreated progressing to pushing the pinna forward.

Any suspected cases should be admitted for IV antibiotics and investigated further via CT head if no improvement is seen after 24 hours of IV antibiotics.

There is a higher risk of intracranial spread and meningitis, hence cases are often considered for mastoidectomy as definitive management if there is no improvement with IV antibiotics

Figure 3 – Mastoiditis, a relatively common complication of AOM

Key Points

  • Acute otitis media is a common infection of the middle ear, mostly seen in young children
  • Diagnosis is clinical, with most patients having varying degrees of pain, malaise, fever, and coryzal symptoms
  • Most cases can be treated conservatively, via simple analgesics and without any antibiotics
  • An important complication is mastoiditis, whereby infection spreads to the mastoid air cells