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Chronic Otitis Media

Alternate Names

  • persistent otitis media
  • recurrent otitis media
  • glue ear
  • Middle ear

Definition

Otitis media with effusion (OME), in the past called chronic otitis media is a term used to describe persistent or chronic middle ear inflammation. It may be due to persistent fluid behind the eardrum from repeated middle ear infections.

What is going on in the body?

Fluid behind the eardrum is common with a middle ear infection (acute otitis media - AOM). Middle ear infections are common in children during the first few years after birth, though less so since the routine use of pneumococcal vaccine. This fluid goes away in almost all children within three months of the infection.
In a few children who have OME, the fluid does not go away on its own. This collection of fluid is called effusion, which means fluid behind the eardrum.
Repeated episodes of middle ear infections may also cause a tear in the eardrum. This condition, if it does not spontaneously heal, makes the ear more prone to become infected with bacteria.

Risks

What are the causes and risks of the condition?

The cause of OME is usually a middle ear infection (AOM). In large studies in daycare centers, up to 70% of children had fluid behind their eardrums at some point during a year. About 90% of the time, the fluid went away without treatment. Other causes include chronic sinus infection and allergies.
Certain abnormalities in the shape of the face, palate, or eustachian tube, which connects the middle ear cavity with the throat, may also put a child at higher risk. Even though it is extremely rare, fluid behind just one eardrum can indicate a cancer. This is particularly true in adults.
Children with Down syndrome and those who are Native American seem to have a higher risk for this condition.

Prevention

What can be done to prevent the condition?

To prevent OME, children should receive prompt evaluation of ear infections. If antibiotics are prescribed, the pills or liquid must be taken until gone, even if the child feels better. Most children are now immunized with the pneumococcal.vaccines to help prevent infections.

Diagnosed

How is the condition diagnosed?

There are two main ways to diagnose OME. On physical exam with an otoscope, the healthcare professional can see fluid behind the eardrum and note that it moves poorly.
Eardrum mobility can also be measured with a special test, which gives an abnormal result when fluid is behind the eardrum. A hearing test will often reveal some hearing loss as well.
If OME is due to a tear in the eardrum, it is usually possible to see the tear with the otoscope. Hearing tests are usually abnormal in this case as well. Special x-ray tests, such as a CAT scan, may be done in rare cases.

Long Term Effects

What are the long-term effects of the condition?

With prompt treatment, there usually are no long-term effects, unless treatment fails. Untreated cases or treatment failure may result in:
  • hearing loss
  • speech and learning delays secondary to hearing loss
  • scarring of the eardrum
  • damage to the bones that assist with hearing and some of the skull bones
  • damage to the nerves responsible for hearing, which can cause permanent, untreatable deafness
  • extension of the infection into the skull or even the brain, which can cause death in rare cases

Other Risks

What are the risks to others?

Chronic middle ear infections are not catching and pose little risk to others.

Treatments

What are the treatments for the condition?

Antibiotics and corticosteroid medicines are often given. If otitis media does not respond to those medicines, ventilation tubes are a treatment option. Ventilation tubes are tiny tubes that are inserted through the eardrum to help equalize the pressure inside the ear and allow fluid drainage.
With a perforated eardrum or ear cyst, surgery is usually advised. This may include repairing the eardrum and removing any infected tissue, diseased or scarred membranes, or cysts that are in or around the ear. The hearing bones may also need repair.

Side Effects

What are the side effects of the treatments?

Ventilation tubes usually cause few side effects. A hole in the eardrum remains in 2% to 3% of children once the tubes are removed. Other complications can include:
  • chronic ear drainage
  • ear cysts
  • infection
  • further hearing loss
The tubes last for 6 to 12 months on average. Another set of tubes is needed in about 20% of those children.
Surgery in and around the ear may fail to get rid of the infection completely or fail to restore all of the hearing loss. Side effects can include a disturbance of taste on part of the tongue. Other side effects may include nerve damage leading to deafness, dizziness, facial paralysis on one side, or breakdown of the repaired eardrum. If synthetic materials are used to restore the bones for hearing, the materials can become dislodged or fail.

After Treatment

What happens after treatment for the condition?

In chronic otitis media, hearing is usually restored very quickly after treatment. If ventilation tubes are required, drainage through the tube may continue for a short while. After tubes are placed, some care needs to be taken to prevent bacteria in the middle ear space. Sometimes chlorinated water, such as that in swimming pools or out of the tap, can get into the middle ear space through the tube.
Swimming with tubes is a controversial topic. Many doctors advise that children with tubes should not swim at all. If children do swim, they should wear earplugs and a headband. Most doctors advise children with tubes not to dive. Often, antibiotic eardrops are used after swimming or if there is some concern that water has gotten into the ears.
The risk of an infection is highest if shampoo or soapy bath water enters the middle ear through the tube. Bath water often contains bacteria from the bowel and skin. Soap helps bath water slide more easily into the middle ear.
In most people who have had surgery for chronic middle ear inflammation, healing is complete within two to three months. If the treatment is a success, there will be no further infections, and hearing is improved. But if the infection continues, the eardrum may perforate again, or fluid may develop behind it.

Monitor

How is the condition monitored?

Hearing loss after an upper respiratory infection or a treated acute ear infection should prompt a visit to the doctor. After tube placement, if drainage continues or hearing does not improve, a doctor should be consulted.
Any new or worsening symptoms should be reported to a doctor. Anyone with ear drainage needs to be seen by a doctor right away. This is especially true if there is hearing loss, dizziness, facial paralysis, or high fevers.

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