If your child has persistent ear infections or has trouble hearing associated with frequent or chronic ear infections, your pediatrician might suggest seeing an ENT physician for ear tubes. Imagining your child needing any kind of procedure can be scary if you don’t understand the benefits. Understanding what ear tubes are, how they are inserted, what they do and how they can benefit your child is important in feeling comfortable with this simple and effective treatment.
Ear tubes can be placed in both kids and adults, but they are more common in children because they tend to have recurrent middle ear infections as a result of eustachian tube malfunction. Eustachian tubes take a while to fully develop and function properly. The eustachian tube connects the middle ear to the back of the nose. It is usually shut and it opens when one yawns or swallows. This opening process allows air to enter the middle ear space and mucus to drain out. A child’s immature eustachian tube cannot do this efficiently so they are more vulnerable to middle ear infections.
The first of these infections almost always starts out as a cold. The respiratory lining swells and the body can’t get air from the nose to the ear, causing mucus and pressure to build up. The lining of the space behind the eardrum normally absorbs air, and when the eustachian tube is obstructed it builds negative pressure and can damage the middle ear.
When the child experiences many infections, the lining of the ear and eustachian tubes becomes swollen and non functional. The fluid cannot drain, and the child’s own bacteria collects in the fluid, causing it to get continuously infected.
An ear tube is a tiny cylinder made of plastic that is temporarily inserted into the ear to act as a temporary eustachian tube. It allows air to go in and mucus to drain out. This helps the ear function normally until the child’s own eustachian tube functions well enough for the tube to fall out. Rare cases occur in less than 5% of patients where the hole does not close on its own and the child will undergo a patch procedure. In 95% of cases the tubes fall out in 9-15 months. The procedure is regarded as simple and safe, and staff present during the procedure monitors the patient carefully while under anesthesia.
While certainly a well-recognized benefits of using ear tubes is that your child will likely experience fewer ear infections, the main goal is to allow your child to hear better, which also has implications in proper speech development. There are also other benefits to ear tubes, such as knowing more quickly if your child does develop an ear infection, because when the tube is working properly and it will drain. It is also easier to treat an ear infection when the child has ear tubes, because the ear drop can go right to the infection site and avoid antibiotics by mouth.
When your child wakes up from the procedure, he or she will likely seem somewhat cranky from the sedation. After a nap they should return to normal. A long-held theory is that the ear should not get wet after the tube is inserted. It’s true that earplugs should be used in a river, lake or ocean because there could be bacteria or other infectants present. However, exposure to clean water is no problem.
Overall, this short, outpatient procedure is safe and beneficial. From the time you bring your child into the outpatient surgery center to the time they are in recovery takes about 10 minutes, and they will be recovered (but cranky) after 15 minutes. This is a small price to pay for a child with healthier ears.