What Parents Should Know About Ear Tubes

Child ear examBabies and ear infections go hand-in-hand. Most will experience at least one infection by their first birthday, and some will face more than four in a year. That’s when an otolaryngologist—an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist—may suggest ear-tube placement. As one of the most commonly performed surgeries for children in the us, this simple procedure can provide relief for ear infection-prone little ones. We talked with Dr. Soham Roy, Director of Pediatric Otolaryngology at McGovern medical School at UTHealth, affiliated with Children’s Memorial Hermann Hospital, to find out more about the procedure, which he performs 300 to 400 times per year.

What Are Ear Tubes?

Also known as tympanostomy tubes, these tiny, traditionally plastic cylinders are inserted into the eardrum to prevent fluid buildup and treat persistent, recurrent or severe ear infections. The tubes sit in the eardrum and cannot be seen outside the ear.

Why Do Children Sometimes Need Tubes?

Normally, the middle ear is ventilated by the eustachian tube, which runs from each middle ear to the back of the nose. Their purpose is to regulate air pressure, refresh air in the ear and drain its normal secretions. Eustachian tubes can be blocked by swelling, inflammation or mucus due to respiratory infections or allergies, resulting in a build-up of fluid in the middle ear. This condition is more common in children because their eustachian tubes are floppier and more horizontal than those in adults, and therefore, more likely to get clogged. Eustachian tube issues not only can cause hearing loss, but also can affect children’s speech development.

Did you know? Ear tubes can reduce the frequency and symptoms of ear infections.

How Do Ear Tubes Help?

The surgeon makes a tiny incision in the child’s eardrum, suctions fluid from the middle ear, and inserts the tube. The entire process takes 15 minutes or less. Within six to 24 months, the tubes fall out and the eardrum holes close on their own the majority of the time. While ear tubes don’t “cure” ear infections, they reduce their frequency and symptoms, as well as the need for antibiotics, improving both children’s and parents’ quality of life.

Who Needs Ear Tubes?

Dr. Roy recommends children who suffer from three ear infections within six months, or four infections within a year, be taken to a pediatric ENT specialist, who will assess whether ear tubes would be effective. Your pediatrician may also recommend evaluation by a pediatric ENT specialist for a child who has persistent fluid in the ear, or a complicated ear infection that doesn’t resolve with antibiotics.

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