Mastoiditis in children and adults definition and facts
Mastoiditis in adults and children is a serious condition that requires prompt treatment.
- Mastoiditis (acute and chronic) is a bacterial infection of the mastoid cells in the mastoid bone, which is located just behind the ear.
- Mastoiditis can become serious if the infection spreads outside the mastoid bone.
- Symptoms of acute mastoiditis include:
- Pain in or behind the ear
- Swelling of the area behind the ear
- Ear discharge
- The most common cause of mastoiditis is an untreated inner ear infection (otitis media).
- Diagnosis of mastoiditis begins with an examination of the ear. Tests that may be used to confirm a diagnosis include CT scan, MRI, X-ray, blood tests, fluid culture, hearing test, and lumbar puncture or “spinal tap.”
- Mastoiditis cannot be treated at home. Medical treatment with antibiotics, and in some people surgery, is necessary as the infection can spread and cause serious complications.
- Home remedies to help ease symptoms of mastoiditis, include:
- Wearing earplugs while swimming or showering
- Using over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and fever reducers to reduce pain.
- Placing a warm compress on the ear.
- Treatment for mastoiditis is with antibiotics. If antibiotics alone do not cure the infection, surgery may be needed to drain the middle ear or to remove part of the infected mastoid bone.
- The main way to prevent mastoiditis is to prevent ear infections (acute otitis media) or by treating an ear infection right away.
- Mastoiditis can be cured if treated with antibiotics right away. It may come back periodically (recur) in some individuals. If infection spreads, serious complication can arise including hearing loss, bone infection, blood clots, brain abscess, and meningitis.
What is mastoiditis?
The mastoid bone is the back part of the temporal bone of the skull located just behind the inner ear. Mastoiditis is infection of the mastoid bone. The mastoid bone is made up of a honeycomb-like structure, which is full of mastoid air cells. The mastoid air cells can become infected or inflamed, often as a result of an inner ear infection (otitis media). If infection spreads outside the mastoid air cells into the mastoid bone (coalescent mastoiditis), serious health problems can arise.
Mastoiditis is more common in children, but it can affect adults as well.
Signs and Symptoms in Adults
A middle ear infection is inflammation of the middle ear, which usually is caused by an infection. Signs and symptoms of a middle ear infection in adults include:
- Difficulty hearing
- Feeling of fullness in the ear
What are the symptoms of mastoiditis?
Symptoms of acute mastoiditis and chronic mastoiditis include:
- Pain or discomfort in or behind the ear (otalgia)
- Redness or tenderness behind the ear
- Swelling of the area behind the ear (this may cause the ear to stick out)
- Ear discharge (otorrhea)
- Hearing loss in the affected ear
- Swelling behind the eyes
- Dizziness or spinning sensation (vertigo) (uncommon)
- Weakened facial muscles (uncommon)
What causes mastoiditis?
The most common cause of mastoiditis is an untreated inner ear infection (acute otitis media).
Less frequently, a condition called cholesteatoma can cause mastoiditis. Cholesteatoma is an abnormal growing collection of skin cells inside the ear that can prevent the ear from draining, which can lead to mastoiditis.
What tests diagnose the cause of mastoiditis?
A doctor will do an examination of the ear canal with an otoscope to see inside the ear canal and visualize the eardrum (tympanic membrane) and structures within the middle ear if possible. Other tests may be ordered to confirm a diagnosis. These tests include:
- CT scan of the temporal bone
- MRI scan of the ear and head
- X-ray of the skull
- Blood tests, including a white blood cell count and complete blood count (CBC)
- Culture of any fluids drained from the ear (via tympanocentesis, tympanostomy, or myringotomy)
- Hearing test (audiometry)
- Lumbar puncture or “spinal tap”
What home treatments relieve pain and other symptoms of mastoiditis?
Mastoiditis cannot be treated at home. It requires medical treatment, as the infection can spread and cause serious complications. Most of the home treatments are aimed at reducing symptoms of an ear infection, which is the most common cause of mastoiditis.
- Wear earplugs when swimming or showering to keep water out of the ears and keep an ear infection from worsening.
- Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relievers and fever reducers such as acetaminophen (Tylenol) or ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) may be taken for pain and inflammation. Do not give aspirin to children or teenagers, as it has been linked with Reye’s syndrome, a rare but serious disease.
- A warm compress held over the ear may help relieve some pain.
- Stay hydrated.
- Avoid air travel if possible, as flying may aggravate ear pain.
What is hearing loss?
When does mastoiditis need to be treated with antibiotics or surgery?
You cannot treat mastoiditis at home. Early diagnosis and treatment with antibiotics is needed to avoid complications. In some cases, intravenous (IV) antibiotics in a hospital may be required.
If antibiotics alone do not cure the infection, surgery may be needed. A myringotomy may be performed to drain the middle ear, and in more serious cases a mastoidectomy may be needed to remove part of the infected mastoid bone.
Is mastoiditis life threatening?
If mastoiditis is treated promptly with antibiotics, it can often be cured. In some people, the infection comes back and another course of antibiotics is required.
If the infection spreads, serious and even life-threatening complications can occur such as:
- Hearing loss that may be permanent
- Facial nerve palsy (facial paralysis)
- Bone infection (osteomyelitis)
- Inflammation of the inner ear nerves (labyrinthitis)
- Blood clots, including sinus thrombosis, which is a blood clot in the sinuses that drains blood from the brain
- Brain abscess (epidural abscess or subperiosteal abscess) or other intracranial complications
Can mastoiditis be prevented?
The best way to prevent mastoiditis is to prevent ear infections (otitis media) and treat any ear infection you have with antibiotic therapy.
Ways to prevent acute middle ear infections include:
- Wash hands frequently to prevent the spread of cold and flu viruses.
- Keep children away from secondhand smoke. Studies have shown children who are around smokers get more ear infections than children not exposed to smoke.
- Be sure your child gets the flu vaccine yearly. Vaccinated children get fewer ear infections than non-vaccinated children.
- Limit your child’s exposure to other children who have a cold or the flu.
Devan, PP. “Mastoiditis.” Medscape. Updated Feb 15, 2018.
Lawrence, RL, MD., et al. “Chronic otitis media, cholesteatoma, and mastoiditis in adults.” UpToDate. Updated: Dec 2019.
National Health Service. “Ear Infections in Children.” Updated: May 12, 2017.