Acute Otitis Media

Acute otitis media (AOM) is the inflammation of the middle ear secondary to viral or bacterial infection. This disease is more prevalent in young children, especially those with risk factors. It is diagnosed based on the clinical presentation, history, physical exam including otoscopy, and appropriate testing when necessary.


AOM occurs most predominantly between the ages of 3 to 18 months as it commonly affects children 2 years or younger [1]. Moreover, some children are prone to developing recurrent episodes.

Neonates with AOM present with irritability and/or trouble with feeding. Older children with this condition typically have fever, ear pain with ear tugging, conductive hearing loss, and possibly an upper respiratory tract infection (URTI). Other possible symptoms include nausea, emesis, diarrhea, and signs related to URTI. Note that hearing loss is common in both children and adults with AOM as well as otitis media with effusion (OME). Hearing does eventually recover [2].

In cases with tympanic membrane perforation, exudative discharge leaks out for a day or two and the pain quickly subsides.

Risk factors

It is important to consider the risk factors when evaluating the patient. These include prematurity, low birth weight, immunosuppression, allergies, exposure to tobacco and environmental pollutants, colder climates, low socioeconomic status, positive family history, and certain racial backgrounds (such as Native Americans). Children with craniofacial defects and neuromuscular disease may be predisposed as well. Finally, pacifier and bottle use, prone sleeping position, and daycare attendance are other contributing factors.

Physical exam

Notable findings suggestive of inflammation on pneumatic otoscopy include an erythematous tympanic membrane, purulent or serosanguinous effusion in the middle ear, and decreased mobility of the tympanic membrane. Bulging of the membrane is also observed.


To establish the diagnosis, the clinician will evaluate the patient's clinical manifestations, history, and risk factors. Also crucial is the physical exam including otoscopy. Testing may be warranted in some cases as explained below.

According to clinical practice guidelines set forth by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Academy of Family Physicians [3], diagnostic criteria include the presence of tympanic membrane bulging, recent onset of otorrhea (in the absence of external otitis media), middle ear effusion, and ear pain or tugging.


Tympanocentesis is performed through piercing of the tympanic membrane and aspiration of the contents. This procedure is indicated in infants less than 6 weeks of age since AOM in this age group may be attributed to unusual organisms. Additionally, patients with failed treatment or signs indicative of sepsis should undergo this procedure. Finally, some patients will need a culture to determine the appropriate management, especially with the emergence of antibacterial resistance hindering treatment [4].


Computed tomography (CT) or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) are obtained if complications are suspected.





Sex distribution
Age distribution




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  1. Paradise JL, Rockette HE, Colborn DK, et al. Otitis media in 2253 Pittsburgh-area infants: prevalence and risk factors during the first two years of life. Pediatrics. 1997; 99(3):318-33.
  2. McDonald S, Langton Hewer CD, et al. Grommets (ventilation tubes) for recurrent acute otitis media in children. Cochrane Database of Systemic Reviews. 2008; (4):CD004741.
  3. Lieberthal AS, Carroll AE, Chonmaitree T, et al. The diagnosis and management of acute otitis media. Pediatrics. 2013; 131(3):e964-99.
  4. Block SL. Causative pathogens, antibiotic resistance and therapeutic considerations in acute otitis media. The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal. 1997; 16(4):449-56.