What Every Parent Should Know About Ear Tubes

Ear infections can occur at any age, but they are diagnosed most often in young children. Five out of six children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, or NIDCD.

The most common type of ear infection is acute otitis media, in which the ear’s Eustachian tube, which ventilates the middle ear and drains infectious fluids and debris, doesn’t work properly. In newborns, the Eustachian tube is flat, but it tilts as you age, which is why most people eventually outgrow recurrent ear infections.

If that drainage system doesn’t do its job, parts of the middle ear swell and fluid is trapped behind the eardrum. This causes severe ear pain and occasionally fever. It also can decrease the ability to hear, which is critical to the development of speech.

Antibiotics are usually effective in treating ear infections, but in some children, the medication either doesn’t work or works only temporarily, says Dr. Matthew D. Scarlett, an ear, nose and throat doctor with Charleston ENT & Allergy.

Medication, however, is not a long-term option. Dr. Scarlett explains how ear tubes are placed to prevent frequent recurrence of ear infections. “They’re very safe, and outcomes are excellent,” he says.

Also known as pressure equalization tubes, ear tubes are tiny metal or plastic cylinders that are surgically inserted in the eardrum to ventilate the middle ear. That prevents fluid from becoming trapped, reducing the frequency and severity of ear infections.

“Every now and then I’ll have parents who are nervous,” Dr. Scarlett says. “I explain that frequent ear infections can cause hearing loss and speech delays. With testing, parents can get a better understanding of the hearing loss. We reassure them that this simple 10-minute procedure will help their child’s development.”

So, who is a good candidate for ear tubes?

If the child has had four or more ear infections in the last six months, or one ear infection in three months despite antibiotics, it’s a good idea to consider ear tubes, Dr. Scarlett says.

Some 667,000 ear tubes are inserted each year in the United States, according to the American Journal of Public Health. By age 3, one in 15 children has ear tubes.

The placement of ear tubes is a fast, painless outpatient procedure that is done under facemask general anesthesia. Typically tubes don’t have to be removed because they fall out on their own in a year and a half to two years, Dr. Scarlett says.

The only downside is the ear can run just like the nose, but if that tube wasn’t in, the same fluid would back up behind the eardrum causing hearing and speech problems, and even affecting a child’s balance.

We treat ear infections so effectively now,” Dr. Scarlett says, that, “you forget at one time kids were going deaf.”

If you’re looking for knowledgeable, compassionate ear, nose and throat doctors to treat ear infections or any other ENT issue, Charleston ENT & Allergy has 11 locations serving Charleston, Dorchester, Colleton, Berkeley, and Beaufort counties. Call for an appointment or visit them online.