Ear Tubes Help Children with Recurrent Ear Infections

Children who have recurrent ear infections, hearing loss or speech delay may need ear tubes. Placing the tubes in the ears drains the fluid and ventilates the middle ear. Tubes may keep ear infections from recurring or keep fluid from building up behind the eardrum.

Ear tubes are plastic and shaped like a hollow spool. A specialist will place the tubes through a small surgical opening made in the eardrum. The child is unconscious under general anesthesia for the outpatient surgery.

Tubes can help with ear infections because they: allow air to enter the middle ear; allow fluid to flow out of the middle ear through the tube into the ear canal; clear fluid from the middle ear and restore hearing; prevent future buildup of fluid in the middle ear while they are in place; and decrease the feeling of pressure in the ears, which reduces pain. 

Children usually recover quickly, with little pain or other symptoms after surgery. Children can usually go home within 1 to 2 hours after the surgery and may be able to return to school or child care the next day.

Follow-up visits with the doctor are very important. The doctor checks to see whether the tubes are working and whether the child's hearing has improved. The tubes stay in place for a year or more before they fall out or are surgically removed. After the tubes are out, watch your child for signs of ear infection or fluid behind the eardrum.

Children need to take extra care while the tubes are in place. Keep water from getting in the ear during a bath, shower, or when swimming. The ear could get infected if any germs from the water get in the ear. A doctor may approve ear plugs or provide other advice.

Minor complications occur in up to half of the children who have tubes inserted. Usual complications include a thickening of the ear drum over time and a discharge of pus from the ear. Other possible complications include the tube becoming blocked, which allows ear fluid and infections to return; the tube may slip out of place, and tissue may form behind the eardrum.

Some children may need to have tubes reinserted. The tubes may also scar the eardrum, which could lead to minor hearing loss. In some cases, the child may need antibiotics to prevent or treat infections.

By Christopher Klimek, PA-C, ThedaCare Physicians-New London.