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Treatment of Acute Otitis Media

Treatment of acute otitis media is controversial. Much of the controversy centers around the difficulty of distinguishing viral infection from bacterial infection and the fact that viral infection can progress to bacterial infection at any time. Primary care providers, such as general practitioners and pediatricians, often have a monocular otoscope and perhaps a tympanometer as their only diagnostic tools, which makes this distinction difficult, especially if the canal is small and there is wax in the ear that obscures a clear view of the eardrum. Also, an upset child's crying can cause the eardrum to look inflamed due to causing distention of the small blood vessels on it, mimicking the redness associated with otitis media. Because of a tradition of inappropriate prescribing of antibiotics for viral acute otitis media, their use has recently been condemned by many primary care practitioners for most cases of acute otitis media. Ear specialists tend to disagree with this philosophy and promote efforts to distinguish between viral and bacterial infection, so as to optimize treatment results by giving antibiotics only for bacterial infection. Acute bacterial otitis media can cause pain that leads to sleepless nights for both children and parents, can cause eardrum perforations, not all of which heal, and can spread to cause mastoiditis and/or meningitis, brain abscess, and even death if a severe infection goes untreated long enough. High fever can occur and can cause febrile seizures. Appropriate antibiotic administration prevents most such complications. On the other hand, it is generally agreed that acute otitis media that is purely viral will usually resolve without antibiotic treatment, although associated persistent middle ear effusions may require medical intervention.

Many guidelines now suggest deferring the start of antibiotics for 1 to 3 days. This results in 2 out of 3 children avoiding the need to start antibiotics, and no adverse effect on longterm outcomes for those whose treatment is deferred. First line antibiotic treatment, if warranted, is Amoxicillin. If the bacteria is resistant, then Augmentin or another penicillin derivative plus beta lactamase inhibitor is second line.

In chronic cases or with effusions present for months, surgery is sometimes performed to insert a grommet (called a "tympanostomy tube") into the eardrum to allow air to pass through into the middle ear, and thus release any pressure buildup and help clear excess fluid within.

Prior to the invention of antibiotics, severe acute otits media was mainly remedied surgically by Myringotomy. An outpatient procedure, it consists of making a small incision in the tympanic membrane to relieve pressure build-up.

For chronic cases (glue ear), it is possible to use the Valsalva maneuver to reestablish middle ear ventilation, although repeated use of the Valsalva maneuver can cause infected matter to enter the eye cavity and cause conjunctivitis.