An ear infection (acute otitis media) is most often a bacterial or viral infection that affects the middle ear, the air-filled space behind the eardrum that contains the tiny vibrating bones of the ear. Children are more likely than adults to get ear infections.

Ear infections frequently are painful because of inflammation and buildup of fluids in the middle ear.

Because ear infections often clear up on their own, treatment may begin with managing pain and monitoring the problem. Ear infection in infants and severe cases in general often require antibiotic medications. Long-term problems related to ear infections — persistent fluids in the middle ear, persistent infections or frequent infections — can cause hearing problems and other serious complications.

About 62 percent of children in developed countries will have their first episode of otitis media by the age of one, more than 80 percent by their third birthday, and nearly 100 percent will have at least one episode by age five. In the U.S. alone, this illness accounts for 25 million office visits annually with direct costs for treatment estimated at $3 billion. Health economists add that when lost wages for parents are included, the total cost of estimated treatments mount to $6 billion.

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