Chronic Otitis Media (COM)

Chronic Otitis Media (COM)

Chronic Otitis Media (COM)

The middle ear is a small bony chamber with three tiny bones – the malleus, incus and stapes – covered by the eardrum (tympanic membrane). Sound is passed from the eardrum through the middle ear bones to the inner ear, where the nerve impulses for hearing are created. The middle ear is connected to the back of the nose and throat by the Eustachian tube, a narrow passage that helps to control the air flow and pressure inside the middle ear. The middle ear can become inflamed or infected when the Eustachian tube becomes blocked, for example, when someone has a cold or allergies. When fluid remains in the middle ear, the condition is called chronic serous otitis media.

Chronic infection of the middle ear and mastoid generally develops as a consequence of recurrent acute otitis media, although it may follow other diseases and trauma. Perforation of the tympanic membrane is usually present. The bacteriology of chronic otitis media differs from that of acute otitis media. Common organisms include P aeruginosa, Proteus species, Staphylococcus aureus, and mixed anaerobic infections.

Chronic suppurative otitis media (CSOM) is the result of an initial episode of acute otitis media and is characterized by a persistent discharge from the middle ear through a tympanic perforation.


The common symptoms of this disease include:

  • Ear pressure.
  • Heaviness.
  • Pain.
  • Swelling.
  • Discharge from the ear.
  • Mild fever.
  • Hearing discomfort.
  • Sleeping trouble.

Clinical Findings

The clinical hallmark of chronic otitis media is purulent aural discharge. Drainage may be continuous or intermittent, with increased severity during upper respiratory tract infection or following water exposure. Pain is uncommon except during acute exacerbations. Conductive hearing loss results from destruction of the tympanic membrane or ossicular chain, or both.


The medical treatment of chronic otitis media includes regular removal of infected debris, use of earplugs to protect against water exposure, and topical antibiotic drops (ofloxacin 0.3% or ciprofloxacin with dexamethasone) for exacerbations. Oral ciprofloxacin, active against Pseudomonas, 500 mg twice a day for 1–6 weeks may help dry a chronically discharging ear.

Definitive management is surgical in most cases. Successful reconstruction of the tympanic membrane may be achieved in about 90% of cases, often with elimination of infection and significant improvement in hearing. When the mastoid air cells are involved by irreversible infection, they should be exenterated at the same time through a mastoidectomy.

Complications of Otitis Media


Cholesteatoma is a special variety of chronic otitis media. The most common cause is prolonged eustachian tube dysfunction, with inward migration of the upper flaccid portion of the tympanic membrane. This creates a squamous epithelium-lined sac, which—when its neck becomes obstructed—may fill with desquamated keratin and become chronically infected. Cholesteatomas typically erode bone, with early penetration of the mastoid and destruction of the ossicular chain. Over time they may erode into the inner ear, involve the facial nerve, and on rare occasions spread intracranially. Otoscopic examination may reveal an epitympanic retraction pocket or a marginal tympanic membrane perforation that exudes keratin debris, or granulation tissue. The treatment of cholesteatoma is surgical marsupialization of the sac or its complete removal. This may require the creation of a “mastoid bowl” in which the ear canal and mastoid are joined into a large common cavity that must be periodically cleaned.


Acute suppurative mastoiditis usually evolves following several weeks of inadequately treated acute otitis media. It is characterized by postauricular pain and erythema accompanied by a spiking fever. CT scan reveals coalescence of the mastoid air cells due to destruction of their bony septa. Initial treatment consists of intravenous antibiotics (eg, cefazolin 0.5–1.5 g every 6–8 hours) directed against the most common offending organisms (S pneumoniae, H influenzae, and S pyogenes), and myringotomy for culture and drainage. Failure of medical therapy indicates the need for surgical drainage (mastoidectomy).

Petrous Apicitis

The medial portion of the petrous bone between the inner ear and clivus may become a site of persistent infection when the drainage of its pneumatic cell tracts becomes blocked. This may cause foul discharge, deep ear and retro-orbital pain, and sixth nerve palsy (Gradenigo syndrome); meningitis may be a complication. Treatment is with prolonged antibiotic therapy (based on culture results) and surgical drainage via petrous apicectomy.

Facial Paralysis

Facial palsy may be associated with either acute or chronic otitis media. In the acute setting, it results from inflammation of the seventh nerve in its middle ear segment. Treatment consists of myringotomy for drainage and culture, followed by intravenous antibiotics (based on culture results). The use of corticosteroids is controversial. The prognosis is excellent, with complete recovery in most cases.

Facial palsy associated with chronic otitis media usually evolves slowly due to chronic pressure on the seventh nerve in the middle ear or mastoid by cholesteatoma. Treatment requires surgical correction of the underlying disease. The prognosis is less favorable than for facial palsy associated with acute otitis media.

Sigmoid Sinus

Thrombosis Trapped infection within the mastoid air cells adjacent to the sigmoid sinus may cause septic thrombophlebitis. This is heralded by signs of systemic sepsis (spiking fevers, chills), at times accompanied by signs of increased intracranial pressure (headache, lethargy, nausea and vomiting, papilledema). Diagnosis can be made noninvasively by magnetic resonance venography (MRV). Primary treatment is with intravenous antibiotics (based on culture results). Surgical drainage with ligation of the internal jugular vein may be indicated when embolization is suspected.

Central Nervous System Infection

Otogenic meningitis is by far the most common intracranial complication of ear infection. In the setting of acute suppurative otitis media, it arises from hematogenous spread of bacteria, most commonly H influenzae and S pneumoniae. In chronic otitis media, it results either from passage of infection along preformed pathways, such as the petrosquamous suture line, or from direct extension of disease through the dural plates of the petrous pyramid.

Epidural abscesses arise from direct extension of disease in the setting of chronic infection. They are usually asymptomatic but may present with deep local pain, headache, and low-grade fever. They are often discovered as an incidental finding at surgery. Brain abscess may arise in the temporal lobe or cerebellum as a result of septic thrombophlebitis adjacent to an epidural abscess. The predominant causative organisms are S aureus, S pyogenes, and S pneumoniae. Rupture into the subarachnoid space results in meningitis and often death.

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