Otitis media, or middle ear infection, happens when the usually air-filled space behind the eardrum becomes inflamed and filled with pus.
This is usually caused by a bacterial infection, but viruses can sometimes cause them.
Symptoms of otitis media in infants can include pulling on the ears, increased irritability, increased crying, decreased appetite, fever, difficulty sleeping and frequent awakening through the night.
Older infants can have loss of balance and may have difficulty with their hearing.
Otitis media is often triggered by another (frequently viral) illness, such as a head cold. Allergies can also trigger it.
Babies are prone to ear infections. The eustachian tubes that drain the clear fluid into the backs of their noses are narrower, shorter and angled more horizontally than those of older children and adults.
Their adenoids – the “tonsils of the nose” – can be enlarged and can block the ends of these tubes.
The immune systems of infants are still developing, so they tend to get the primary infections that trigger ear infections more frequently.
While otitis media in infants is common, much can be done to help prevent it.
Breastfeeding has been shown to cut in half the number of cases of otitis media.
Bottle-fed infants should be fed while held at an angle (with their heads higher, of course) instead of lying flat.
Avoid “bottle-propping” and giving infants a bottle while in the crib.
Parents should also avoid exposing babies to second-hand smoke.
Limit exposure of the infant to other children. This helps prevent middle ear infections by decreasing the likelihood that a baby will catch the viruses that can trigger them.
While this may not be possible if a baby needs to be in daycare, look for a situation where fewer children are present to lower exposure.
Good parental (and other caregiver) hand-washing techniques can also limit the spread of these viruses.
Influenza and pneumococcal vaccines have been shown to decrease the number of episodes of otitis media in infants.
These should be given when the infant is old enough for them.
Episodes of otitis media in infants can be treated with antibiotics.
Babies can also be given analgesics and numbing drops, which in most cases can make the infant more comfortable.
Preventing otitis media in the first place, though, is much better for the infant.