Why Does My Child Need Tubes for Ear Infections?

Almost all children have at least one ear infection by the time they’re 5. But if they occur over and over or your child has hearing loss because of fluid build-up, your doctor might suggest ear tubes.

If other treatments aren’t working, they can provide relief for your child. They also prevent long-term hearing problems.

Why So Many Ear Infections?

They happen when viruses or bacteria collect in the middle ear, the space right behind the eardrum. Children get more ear infections than adults because their bodies are still developing.

In kids, the parts of the ear that drain fluid, the Eustachian tubes, are smaller and almost level to the ground. That means they don’t drain as well even when a young one is healthy.

When the Eustachian tubes swell or fill with mucus, perhaps during a cold, it’s even worse. It creates just the right conditions for bacteria to thrive, which can lead to infection. And for some kids, it just happens more often.

During an infection, fluid builds up in the middle ear. That creates pressure and pain. It also explains the following signs and symptoms:

  • Fluid coming from the ear
  • Hard time sleeping
  • More fussiness or crying than normal, especially when lying down
  • Seeming clumsy or having trouble with balance
  • Tugging at an ear

When Is Treatment Needed?

Your doctor might take a wait-and-see approach. Often, a typical infection goes away on its own, especially if it’s from a virus. Sometimes your child needs antibiotics to kill infections caused by bacteria.

But some kids just get a lot of ear infections and sometimes they don’t clear up very easily. Usually, it doesn’t cause long-term problems, but frequent ones can lead to:

  • Delays in learning speech and developing social skills
  • Hearing loss
  • Infection that spreads to other parts of the head
  • Tears, or holes, in the eardrum

Continued

Why Ear Tubes?

It depends on your child’s history with infections. Your doctor might suggest tubes if your child gets a lot of them, meaning:

  • Three or more in six months
  • Four or more in a year

Your doctor may also talk to you about tubes if your child has a long-term problem and antibiotics haven’t helped.

The other main reason is if your child has fluid build-up that causes hearing loss, even if there’s no infection.

What Are They Exactly?

Ear tubes are like a section of a really tiny drinking straw. They’re round, hollow, and usually made of metal or plastic.

Your doctor makes a small opening in the eardrum and puts in the tube to let air into the middle ear.

How Do They Help?

The tubes act as small windows for the ear. They help air flow into the ear, which keeps pressure even and helps the ear drain better.

With better airflow, fluid won’t build up and bacteria won’t have such a friendly home.

If your child has hearing loss from fluid build-up, it goes away as soon as the tubes are in. For delays in development, you’ll likely see improvement in the weeks and months ahead.

How Long Do They Stay In?

Some ear tubes are for the short-term. They go in for 6 to 18 months and usually fall out on their own. Others are designed to stay in for longer. They may fall out on their own or might need to be taken out by a doctor.

Once the tubes are out, the opening in the eardrum usually closes on its own.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on August 01, 2018

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery: “Ear Tubes.”

Mayo Clinic: “Ear infection (middle ear),” “Ear Tubes.”

NIH, National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, “Ear Infections in Children.”

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