When your child has an ear infection, extra fluid can build up behind the ear drum inside the middle ear. If this fluid repeatedly gets infected, your doctor may recommend that your child get tubes inserted into the ear drum to allow the fluid to drain.
Ear infections are a common part of growing up. In fact, by age five, almost every child has had at least one painful ear infection. For most children, these infections either clear up on their own or are easily treated with antibiotics. But when ear infections become chronic or happen repeatedly, other problems can develop including hearing loss and problems with behavior and speech. In these situations, inserting tubes in the ear drum may help.
Ear tubes are most often recommended for young children between the ages of one and three years old. Each year, more than 500-thousand ear tube surgeries are performed on children, making this the most common childhood surgery performed with anesthesia. This procedure can also be used to help teens and adults with speech and balance problems, hearing loss, and changes in the structure of the ear drum.
What are ear tubes?
Ear tubes are tiny plastic or metal cylinders. They are also sometimes called drainage tubes, tympanostomy tubes, or ventilation tubes. A doctor who specializes in treating the Ears, Nose, and Throat (Otolaryngologist or ENT) will perform the surgery. Your child will receive a light anesthetic to help him sleep during the procedure, which only takes about 15 minutes. Using a tiny scalpel or laser, the doctor makes a small hole in the ear drum and suctions out the fluid from the middle ear. He then inserts the tube into the hole in the ear drum. Ear tubes typically remain in place from 6 months to a year. In young children, these tubes often fall out on their own as the ear drum grows. If the tube doesn’t fall out, it may be necessary to surgically remove it.
How do ear tubes work?
When the middle ear becomes infected, fluid can build up inside the middle ear. This causes pressure that makes the ear hurt. It also puts pressure against the inside of the ear drum which prevents the ear drum from vibrating the way it is supposed to. When the ear drum can’t vibrate, hearing is muted or may be temporarily lost. Ear tubes allow the fluid in the middle ear to drain. This releases the pressure on the ear drum and allows it to vibrate so hearing is restored. Just making a hole in the ear drum can release the pressure temporarily, but without the tube in place to keep the hole open, the hole will seal itself in just a few days.
After surgery, you should expect to see drainage from the ear for up to a week. Fluid may appear to crust on the ear, or to seep out of the ear. This is normal. Drainage may be clear, green, yellow, brown, pink, or bloody. If drainage from the ear doesn’t stop after a week, contact your child’s doctor.
Why should my child get ear tubes?
Ear tubes allow the fluid in the middle ear to continue to drain over time. Ear tubes often result in these improvements:
• Fewer ear infections
• Better hearing
• Clearer speech and improved ability to learn new sounds and words
• Improved sleep patterns
If you or your child has repeated ear infections, talk to you doctor to see if you should see an Otolaryngologist, to find out if ear tubes might be the treatment you need.