Otitis: What are the causes and treatments?

Written by: Top Doctors®
Published: | Updated: 21/11/2023
Edited by: Top Doctors®

Otitis is the inflammation of the ear, and can be a fairly common complaint for many people. Many people refer to this condition as an ear infection. There is a clear difference between otitis externa which occurs in the outer part of the ear, and otitis media which occurs behind the eardrum. We explore the differences, what the symptoms are, how it can be treated, and importantly, how you can prevent it. 

Woman with otitis

What are the causes of otitis?

  • Otitis externa (swimmer’s ear) usually happens when water gets into the ear, and is more typical in summer.
  • Otitis media (middle ear infection) is divided into two groups: acute otitis media, which mainly occurs in young children due to bad catarrh, and secretory otitis media due to mucus, which occurs when there is an allergy, rhinitis, or a history of polyps in children.



What are the symptoms of otitis?

The main symptom of otitis externa is a very intense pain, often accompanied by discharge in the ear canal.


Acute otitis media

Acute otitis media, which is caused by infection, usually occurs with fever, a pain that is also intense but not as severe as otitis externa, and an amount of exudate (secretion) that may appear after a few days. In the case of secretory otitis media there can be some sharp pain, the sensation of a blocked ear, and the sensation of the voice rumbling in the ear.



Secretory otitis

There are also symptoms associated to the cause, either an allergy or adenoid polyps in children. Secretory otitis is a common cause of childhood hearing loss and therefore, when the specialist is presented with a case of hearing loss in a child, a problem of mucus in the ear should always be ruled out.



How is otitis diagnosed?

Otitis will be diagnosed by the doctor by making an examination of the ear using a conventional otoscope, an otomicroscope, an endoscopic otoscope or a videotoscope. A diagnosis can then be made by combining the examination with the patient’s medical history. Auditory tests are then performed, of which there are specific tests for children, and tests are also usually done to see how the ear is ventilated and its tympanic mobility, which is called tympanometry.

In the same way, there should be an examination to establish if there are polyps and their severity. Sometimes, allergy testing is also carried out.



How is otitis treated?

In the case of otitis externa, the treatment involves avoiding water getting into the ears, as well as taking anti-inflammatory drugs and eardrops to shorten the evolution of the process.

In acute otitis media, the administration of anti-inflammatories is important and oral antibiotics are often given. In the specific case of secretory otitis media, clinical control is performed to see if the mucus problem is properly resolved. When this is not the case, steroids can be administered orally, or even in some cases, there is the need to treat with transtympanic drainage, which is a simple surgical intervention to avoid long-term damage to the ear.



Can otitis be prevented?

Otitis externa can be prevented by avoiding foreign objects in the ear. The use of cotton swabs should be avoided as well as the insertion of any other instruments into the ear, which may facilitate infection.

For otitis media in children, there can be more risk if the child attends nursery, or from parental smoking. Likewise, allergies and polyps should be taken into account and treated accordingly.




If you'd like to arrange a consultation with one of our otolaryngology/ENT experts you can do so here. 


By Topdoctors
Otolaryngology / ENT

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