Middle ear infections are a common ailment for young children, most often between ages six months and two years. Generally, ear infections clear up in a few weeks and some can be treated with antibiotics. However, when a child has recurrent or severe ear infections, doctors will sometimes insert ear tubes, especially in the event of speech delay or hearing problems.
Ear tubes are small, plastic tubes that are placed in the eardrum during a five- to fifteen-minute outpatient surgery. A small hole is made in the eardrum and the tube is inserted to allow fluid to drain from behind the eardrum. The tube will generally remain in the ear for six to eighteen months, and often falls out on its own as the eardrum heals. If it does not come out on its own, a second surgery may be necessary to remove the tubes.
The surgery to implant ear tubes is simple and one of the most common surgeries done on children. There is a slight danger any time a person goes under anesthesia; however, these instances are rare. Some one-half to two percent of children may have a permanent perforation of the eardrum. This hole will act as a tube and allow fluid to drain from behind the eardrum temporarily, but may require additional surgery in the future. A very small percentage of children may have hearing-related difficulties due to scarring, but without the tubes many more children would have hearing difficulties. In fact, hearing difficulties are what tubes are designed to cure and prevent.
When a child has ear tubes, every effort should be made not to get water in the affected ears. Ear plugs can be quite effective at keeping the area dry. The most danger is from non-chlorinated pools or bathtubs, where there may be a lot of bacteria. If water does get into the ears, ear drops prescribed by a doctor are recommended.
Once the ear tubes have fallen out or been removed, most children no longer are troubled by frequent ear infections. However, up to 25 percent of children who have ear tubes inserted before age two may need them a second time, and all children have some risk of another ear infection.
Overall, the risk of ear tubes is small and generally far outweighed by their benefits. They remove the constant pain of ear infections, drain hearing impairing fluid from behind the eardrum, and provide a way to avoid future ear infections.