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Mastoiditis is a type of ear infection that occurs in the mastoid bone, the portion of the skull behind the ear. The infection is typically the result of an untreated middle ear infection that spreads to this bone. It occurs most often in children and can have serious health risks if not treated.
The area of the ear behind the eardrum is known as the middle ear. It can become infected due to a variety of factors including bacteria, ear structure, or genetic predisposition. Middle ear infections are usually not serious and can be treated with antibiotics. If the infection isn’t treated or doesn’t respond to antibiotics, it can move outward to the mastoid bone and cause mastoiditis.
Some of the symptoms of mastoiditis are the same as other types of ear infections, such as the ear feeling tender or having blood, pus, or fluid leakage. Once the mastoid bone becomes infected, the area behind the ear may become red or swollen enough to cause the ears to slightly protrude forward. The infection can also cause a sudden high fever or headache.
Mastoiditis can worsen over time if it’s not treated when symptoms first begin. A doctor will usually be able to diagnose the infection by examining the physical appearance of the inner and outer ear. He or she will typically feel behind the ear for a swollen mastoid bone. A doctor may also perform an X-ray to check for inflammation of the mastoid bone or any other internal ear abnormalities. He or she may also collect a sample of any ear leakage and examine it for bacteria.
Since mastoiditis is a bacterial infection, it requires antibiotic medication to treat and kill the bacteria. A doctor will typically administer an antibiotic shot, followed by a dose of oral antibiotic medication. The infection often requires two forms of antibiotics because the bacteria is buried deep within the mastoid bone. Even with extensive antibiotic treatment, the infection may be too deep to clear up completely with just medication.
More serious cases of mastoiditis that don’t respond to antibiotics can usually be surgically treated. A surgeon may remove a small portion of the mastoid bone in order to reach the source of the infection and empty any fluid. If any bacteria-filled fluid is left behind, the infection may continue to reoccur.
If mastoiditis is left untreated, it can result in deterioration of the mastoid bone or cause hearing loss. The bacteria can also spread from the bone and affect the facial muscles, resulting in facial paralysis. In some cases, it may cause meningitis, a potentially fatal infection that occurs in the protective membranes surrounding the brain.