Mastoiditis is the result of an infection that extends to the air cells of the skull behind the ear. Specifically, it is an inflammation of the mucosal lining of the mastoid antrum and mastoid air cell system inside the mastoid process. The mastoid process is the portion of the temporal bone of the skull that is behind the ear which contains open, air-containing spaces. Mastoiditis is usually caused by untreated acute otitis media (middle ear infection) and used to be a leading cause of child mortality. With the development of antibiotics, however, mastoiditis has become quite rare in developed countries where surgical treatment is now much less frequent and more conservative, unlike former times. Untreated, the infection can spread to surrounding structures, including the brain, causing serious complications.
The diagnosis of mastoiditis is clinical—based on the medical history and physical examination. Imaging studies provide additional information; The standard method of diagnosis is via MRI scan although a CT scan is a common alternative as it gives a clearer and more useful image to see how close the damage may have gotten to the brain and facial nerves. Planar (2-D) X-rays are not as useful. If there is drainage, it is often sent for culture, although this will often be negative if the patient has begun taking antibiotics. Exploratory surgery is often used as a last resort method of diagnosis to see the mastoid and surrounding areas.