Can tubes stop ear infections?

Q: My daughter gets so many ear infections. How do we know if she should get tubes?

A: Thank you for this question! Frequent ear infections are common for many families. This is a problem that involves persistent fluid and/ or infection in what is called the middle-ear cavity — normally a very small, air-filled space behind the eardrum (tympanic membrane).

When a young child, especially under age 2, suffers from recurring ear infections, families will often start looking for alternatives to the constant need for antibiotics.

One alternative that’s commonly used is the placement of pressure-equalizing or ventilation tubes in the eardrum to drain the fluid from the middle-ear cavity — and prevent it from coming back.

Tubes can be very effective for many children, who typically hear better and suffer less from the wakefulness and pain that go along with ear infections.

One rule of thumb for younger children is if they continue to have fluid and/or infections for six months or more, a family will likely be referred to ENT specialist. Children with persistent bad infections that can’t be cleared by antibiotics will likely get referred earlier. Children who present certain risk factors — such as large adenoids or a cleft palate, for example — may be referred earlier as well.

Tubes aren’t a cure-all for ear infections — a child with tubes can still get ear infections — but you’ll likely see drainage from the ear alerting you to the possibility of an infection.

There can also be some other complications of ventilating tubes, like scarring of the eardrum.

Overall, however, children who need tubes usually do better with them than without.

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