Acute Otitis Media

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a) A close-up of the ear drum (tympanic membrane) which looks like a translucent, thin covering. Labels point out the malleus, incus, and tympanum. B) Without the tymphanic membrane, the region is red and swollen. The bones are deteriorating and yellow mucus builds up. Labels point to mucus, a torn membrane, and eroded inner ear bones.
(a) A healthy tympanic membrane; the middle ear bones can be seen behind the membrane. (b) An ear with chronic inflammation that has resulted in a torn membrane, erosion of the inner ear bones, and mucus buildup. (credit a: modification of work by “”/YouTube; credit b: modification of work by Li Mg, Hotez PJ, Vrabec JT, Donovan DT)

OpenStax Microbiology

An infection of the middle ear is called acute otitis media (AOM), but often it is simply referred to as an earache. The condition is most common between ages 3 months and 3 years. In the United States, AOM is the second-leading cause of visits to pediatricians by children younger than age 5 years, and it is the leading indication for antibiotic prescription.

AOM is characterized by the formation and accumulation of pus in the middle ear. Unable to drain, the pus builds up, resulting in moderate to severe bulging of the tympanic membrane and otalgia (ear pain). Inflammation resulting from the infection leads to swelling of the eustachian tubes, and may also lead to fever, nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, particularly in infants. Infants and toddlers who cannot yet speak may exhibit nonverbal signs suggesting AOM, such as holding, tugging, or rubbing of the ear, as well as uncharacteristic crying or distress in response to the pain.

AOM can be caused by a variety of bacteria. Among neonates, S. pneumoniae is the most common cause of AOM, but Escherichia coliEnterococcus spp., and group B Streptococcus species can also be involved. In older infants and children younger than 14 years old, the most common bacterial causes are S. pneumoniaeHaemophilus influenzae, or Moraxella catarrhalis. Among S. pneumoniae infections, encapsulated strains are frequent causes of AOM. By contrast, the strains of H. influenzae and M. cattarhalis that are responsible for AOM do not possess a capsule. Rather than direct tissue damage by these pathogens, bacterial components such as lipopolysaccharide (LPS) in gram-negative pathogens induce an inflammatory response that causes swelling, pus, and tissue damage within the middle ear.

Any blockage of the eustachian tubes, with or without infection, can cause fluid to become trapped and accumulate in the middle ear. This is referred to as otitis media with effusion (OME). The accumulated fluid offers an excellent reservoir for microbial growth and, consequently, secondary bacterial infections often ensue. This can lead to recurring and chronic earaches, which are especially common in young children. The higher incidence in children can be attributed to many factors. Children have more upper respiratory infections, in general, and their eustachian tubes are also shorter and drain at a shallower angle. Young children also tend to spend more time lying down than adults, which facilitates drainage from the nasopharynx through the eustachian tube and into the middle ear. Bottle feeding while lying down enhances this risk because the sucking action on the bottle causes negative pressure to build up within the eustachian tube, promoting the movement of fluid and bacteria from the nasopharynx.

Diagnosis is typically made based on clinical signs and symptoms, without laboratory testing to determine the specific causative agent. Antibiotics are frequently prescribed for the treatment of AOM. High-dose amoxicillin is the first-line drug, but with increasing resistance concerns, macrolides and cephalosporins may also be used. The pneumococcal conjugate vaccine (PCV13) contains serotypes that are important causes of AOM, and vaccination has been shown to decrease the incidence of AOM. Vaccination against influenza has also been shown to decrease the risk for AOM, likely because viral infections like influenza predispose patients to secondary infections with S. pneumoniae. Although there is a conjugate vaccine available for the invasive serotype B of H. influenzae, this vaccine does not impact the incidence of H. influenzae AOM. Because unencapsulated strains of H. influenzae and M. catarrhalis are involved in AOM, vaccines against bacterial cellular factors other than capsules will need to be developed.


Parker, N., Schneegurt, M., Thi Tu, A.-H., Forster, B. M., & Lister, P. (n.d.). Microbiology. Houston, Texas: OpenStax. Access for free at: