Ear infections are one of the most common reasons parents take their kids to the doctor, and most kids will have had at least one middle ear infection by their third birthday. But some children have chronic middle ear infections, which are known as otitis media, that don’t clear up easily and may lead to other problems like temporary hearing loss.
When this occurs, your child's doctor may refer you to a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist, also called an ENT or otolaryngologist. They may suggest ear tube surgery in which a surgeon places tiny tubes in your child’s eardrums to help prevent future ear infections.
How do ear tubes work?
Normally, a child’s eustachian tubes, which run from the middle ear to the back of the throat, drain secretions from the middle ear. Swelling or inflammation from a cold or allergies can block these tubes, causing fluid to build up in the inner ear. This fluid can become infected with bacteria or a virus.
Inserting ear tubes can help keep this passage open and ventilate through the eardrum, preventing fluid from backing up and getting infected.
“Ear tubes also allow air into the ear and help regulate air pressure,” explains Steven L. Goudy, MD, Medical Director of Otolaryngology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta. “The presence of a tiny hole in the eardrum from an ear tube doesn’t damage hearing. In fact, there is often an immediate improvement in hearing.”
And while effective in reducing chronic ear infections, Dr. Goudy adds that ear tubes aren’t always a permanent cure. “About 20% of kids who need ear tubes by age 2 may need them again when they’re older.”
Why do some kids need ear tube surgery?
More than half a million kids have ear tube surgery every year—usually when they’re 1 to 3 years old—making it the most common children’s surgery performed under anesthesia.
Ear tubes may help:
- Reduce the risk of future ear infections (80% of children stop getting ear infections after ear tube surgery).
- Restore hearing loss caused by middle ear infections.
- Improve speech and balance problems.
- Improve behavior, sleep and learning problems caused by chronic ear infections.
How can I tell if my child might need ear tube surgery?
Ear tube surgery may be recommended if your child has one or more of the following symptoms:
- Three or more ear infections in a six-month time period
- Four to six or more ear infections in a year
- Long-term bacterial ear infections that don’t improve with antibiotics
- Uninfected fluid buildup in the middle ear that lasts at least three months and causes hearing loss or speech delays
The ENTs at Children’s perform thousands of ear tube surgeries each year. Our pediatric-trained surgeons know how to care for kids of all ages—even children as young as 2 months old—and are specialists in diagnosing and treating chronic ear infections, as well as when it may be time for your child to undergo ear tube surgery.
Steven Goudy, MD, is Medical Director of Otolaryngology at Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta, as well as Professor and Director of Pediatric Otolaryngology at Emory University School of Medicine. He joined Children’s in 2015 by way of Vanderbilt University Children’s Hospital, where he worked for 10 years following his fellowship training in pediatric otolaryngology.
This content is general information and is not specific medical advice. Always consult with a doctor or healthcare provider if you have any questions or concerns about the health of a child. In case of an urgent concern or emergency, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency department right away. Some physicians and affiliated healthcare professionals on Children’s Healthcare of Atlanta team are independent providers and are not our employees.