A healthy living blog from Marshfield Clinic Health System

Are tubes the answer to frequent ear infections?

Girl plugging her ears - Frequent ear infections

Tubes help the ears drain, which reduces ear infections and makes them easier to treat.

Ear infections are a normal part of childhood.

Most babies and toddlers get one or two every year, but some kids get several infections every year because their eustachian tubes don’t work well.

Eustachian tubes connect the middle ear to the throat. Their job is to drain fluid and keep pressure equal on both sides of the eardrum. Ear infections happen when the tubes don’t work well and fluid builds up in the middle ear.

Colds are a common cause of ear infections. Children who go to daycare tend to get more ear infections because they’re exposed to more illnesses. Secondhand smoke, increased saliva from teething, and feeding babies who are lying down also increase chances of children getting ear infections. Kids who get a lot of ear infections tend to have parents who were ear infection-prone.

Occasional ear infections can be successfully treated with oral antibiotics. Frequent infections pose a greater problem, said Dr. David Holz, a Marshfield Clinic pediatrician.

Too many ear infections cause antibiotic resistance

“Ear infections become worrisome when they happen so frequently that we have to use antibiotics a lot,” Holz said. “We end up dealing with infections that don’t respond to antibiotics.”

When it takes three or four different antibiotics to treat an infection, or when a child needs several rounds of antibiotics per cold and flu season, it’s time to think about ear tubes.

Tubes help ears drain better

Ear tubes are placed through a small incision in the eardrum. The procedure is simple and the child is in and out of the hospital within a few hours.

The tubes hold the hole in the eardrum open so fluid can easily drain out of the ear. Ear infections are less likely when pressure and fluid can’t build up in the middle ear.

If the child does get an ear infection, the pediatrician can prescribe antibiotic drops that are given through the ear tubes. Antibiotic resistance is less likely when only the ear is being treated.

Tubes stay in for six months to two years. They usually fall out naturally during that time and the eardrum heals naturally.

“We hope children have grown enough that their natural eustachian tubes work better or that their immune system is better able to fight off colds and infections,” Holz said.

Sometimes ear infections recur and kids need a second round of tubes. Kids who still get a lot of ear infections by age 4 or 5 may have other problems that cause the infections, like large adenoids that block the eustachian tubes.

Kids needing ear tubes isn’t something parents need to be afraid of.

“By the time they have been through so many nights of fevers and crabby babies, most parents are happy their child no longer has pressure and ear pain,” Holz said. “The tubes can make life a lot easier.”

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