Sometimes, seemingly small ailments can cause surprisingly serious long-term afflictions; otitis media, also known as an ear infection, is one such condition. While otitis media is both very common and often mild, it’s important to be aware of the illness as well as the potential for long-term side effects and hearing loss.

What is otitis media?

Otisis media is the medical term for an inflammation in the middle ear – this is the area just behind the eardrum. It’s usually caused by a buildup of fluid, which can in some cases be infected. In reality, otitis media is a condition but the severity of the condition and therefore the symptoms of it can vary wildly between cases. While many cases are mild, and may just result in a short period of temporary slight hearing loss, in some cases patients can experience repeated severe bouts involving infected, thick fluid, which can be both painful and potentially cause permanent hearing loss.

How common is otitis media?

Otitis media is very common, particularly in infants and very young children. 75% of children suffer from otitis media at least once by the time of their third birthday, and it is the most frequently diagnosed illness in infants in young children. The reason why it is so common in this group is that the eustachian tube, which connected the middle ear to the back of the throat, is smaller and more horizontal in young children, meaning it can be more easily blocked.

How can I tell if my child has otitis media?

While more severe cases of otitis media may cause pain and fever, many cases can easily go unnoticed even if they are recurring. Signs to look out for in your child include pulling at the ears, inattentiveness, wanting the TV louder, irritability, and misunderstanding directions. While these might all sounds like quite vague symptoms – particularly in a young child – if you’re concerned, it’s always better to have them checked out than to worry.

Can otitis media cause hearing loss?

Yes – though in many cases the hearing loss is just temporary. Otitis media is actually the most common cause of hearing loss in young children. Milder cases may result in hearing loss which comes and goes with the illness; what can be more concerning is when children suffer from repeated severe cases of otitis media, in which case permanent hearing loss can sometimes occur if there is permanent damage to the eardrum of the bones of the ear.

It’s worth pointing out, though, that in the early stages of childhood even temporary hearing loss can be quite serious. If children are unable to hear properly, this can have a significant impact on their speech and language development, as they are unable to correctly hear and speech sounds can be very muffled even in mild cases of otitis media. This can be particularly difficult in mild, recurring cases which can often go under the radar for long periods.

What should I do if I think my child is suffering from otitis media?

If you’re concerned that your child may be suffering from otitis media, and particularly if the problem is chronic or recurring, it’s important to take your child to a doctor as soon as possible. An otolaryngologist should be able to deal with the medical side of ear infections, but if the infection is chronic, you should also consult an audiologist to check your child’s hearing and a speech therapist to asses your child’s speech and language development. By consulting the right specialists, it’s possible to seek effective treatments and therapies which will not only cure your child’s otitis media but also work to remedy any speech and hearing problems which could have been caused by the infection.