How to Fight Childhood Ear Infections

When is it time for ear tubes?
Child with ear infection

By age 5, nearly every child has had at least one ear infection. Consider it a rite of passage, like learning to walk and getting your first loose tooth.

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But some kids seem to get more than their fair share of infections. To weary parents, it can feel like each time their child gets a cough or cold he or she also develop some of these telltale symptoms:

  • Pain inside the ear.
  • Sense of fullness in the ear.
  • Muffled hearing.
  • Fever.
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea (especially in young children).

Babies too young to say where it hurts may rub or tug their ears, cry, and be irritable or unable to sleep.

“Ear tubes offer immediate relief and restore hearing, which is especially important for young ones learning speech and language skills.”

Three types of treatment

“When parents are frustrated by recurring ear infections, I tell them about three treatment options,” says otolaryngologist Richard Freeman, MD, PhD.

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  1. Keep treating individual infections with doctor visits and antibiotics.
  2. Use antibiotics long-term to prevent infections.
  3. Get tympanostomy tubes, “ear tubes,” to reduce the risk of infections.

“Deciding what’s best is ultimately up to them,” says Dr. Freeman. “But ear tubes offer immediate relief and restore hearing, which is especially important for young ones learning speech and language skills. Plus, there’s no risk of developing antibiotic side effects or resistance.”

When is it time to consider ear tubes?

According to Dr. Freeman, it may be time to seriously consider ear tubes if your child has had:

  • Three ear infections in six months or four infections in 12 months.
  • Any ear infection not resolved with antibiotics.
  • Hearing loss caused by fluid buildup behind the eardrum, especially lasting more than four to six months.

Quick, painless procedure

Ear tube surgery is one of the most common childhood surgeries. More than half a million are performed each year — usually on patients one to three years old. The procedure takes about 10 minutes, and risk of complication is very low.

Here’s what happens:

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  1. Your child receives general anesthesia so he or she is relaxed and comfortable.
  2. The doctor clears wax and debris from the ear.
  3. Using a microscope, he or she makes a small incision in the eardrum and removes any fluid behind it.
  4. Then, the doctor inserts a tiny tube through the incision. It acts like a vent, equalizing air pressure in the middle ear, which helps prevent fluid buildup and infections.
  5. Your child wakes up, goes home and has a normal day.

“Many children never have another ear infection,” says Dr. Freeman.

Ear tubes typically stay in about a year and fall out on their own. Often, tubes that don’t fall out can be removed easily in the doctor’s office. Occasionally a second operative procedure is needed.

Eventually kids do grow out of recurring ear infections — usually at around 6 years old, as their natural ear tubes (Eustachian tubes) mature. In the meantime, a simple ear tube procedure may save both you and your child an earful of misery.

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