Children's Hospital Colorado
Ear, Nose and Throat

Otitis Media (Ear Infections)

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What is otitis media (ear infections)?

Otitis media is the scientific name for an ear infection. Ear infections are the most common childhood bacterial infections and the most common reason pediatricians prescribe antibiotics.

Ear infections can occur in any part of the ear: the outer ear, the ear canal, the middle ear or the inner ear. Infections of the middle ear, the area behind the eardrum, are the most common type in children.

There are three types of otitis media:

  • Acute otitis media: Most ear infections are this type. It affects the middle ear and is usually accompanied by fever, ear pain and irritability.
  • Otitis media with effusion: This condition can occur when some fluid remains in the eardrum after an ear infection has healed or may occur spontaneously after a cold or other upper respiratory condition. Your child may experience temporary hearing loss due to the excess fluid in their eardrum.
  • Recurrent (chronic) acute otitis media: These are acute ear infections that return over and over and may not respond well to antibiotics.

What causes ear infections in kids?

Ear infections happen when bacteria get into the middle ear and Eustachian tubes. Eustachian tubes connect the middle ear to the back of the nose to help drain fluid from the middle ear. Eustachian tubes in infants and young children are smaller and less angled than in adults, which makes it harder for fluid to drain from the ear.

When a baby or child has a cold or other respiratory virus, it’s easy for germs to travel from the nose or throat into the ear. Once there, the infection causes the Eustachian tubes to swell, and fluid builds up in the ear.

Who gets ear infections?

Ear infections are the number one cause of doctor visits for babies and young children. In fact, five out of six kids will experience an ear infection by the time they turn 3. Children with Down syndrome or cleft palate are at a higher risk for ear infections.

Though ear infections affect younger children more frequently, people of any age can get them.

Get to know our pediatric experts.

Stephen Newton, MD

Stephen Newton, MD

Otolaryngology

Allison Dobbie, MD

Allison Dobbie, MD

Otolaryngology

Kenny Chan, MD

Kenny Chan, MD

Otolaryngology, Pediatric Otolaryngology

Tammy Wang, MD

Tammy Wang, MD

Otolaryngology