What Parents Should Know About Ear Tubes

Your child is tugging on his ear—again. “My ear hurts, Mommy.”

As a parent, you’re definitely not alone. Ear infections are the most common reason parents take their kids to the doctor, and most kids have at least one middle ear infection by their third birthday. Thankfully, a typical ear infection is not serious and easily treatable with antibiotics.

However, some children have chronic middle ear infections, which is known as otitis media or OM, 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 (ENT) specialist who may suggest surgery to place tiny tubes in the eardrums to help prevent future ear infections.

Ear tube surgery is a safe procedure with a very low risk of serious complications. More than half a million kids get ear tube surgery every year—usually when they’re 1 to 3 years old—making it the most common childhood surgery performed with anesthesia.

Why does my child keep getting ear infections?

Some kids suffer from persistent middle ear infections because of environmental factors like group childcare or secondhand smoke exposure. Studies have shown that babies who are around smokers have more ear infections. There is also a genetic component to chronic ear infections. Whatever the reason, recurrent middle ear infections can be quite painful. And, the pressure of fluid on the eardrum can cause temporary hearing loss, which can lead to delays in speech development and learning.

What are some signs that my child might need ear tubes?

While ear tube surgery is common, is not the first choice of treatment for middle ear infections. Most ear infections can be treated with antibiotics or will clear up on their own.

Surgery should only be considered if ear infections become a chronic problem. This may be indicated if your child has one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Four or more ear infections in a six-month time period
  • 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

What are the benefits of ear tubes?

Inserting ear tubes may:

  • Reduce the risk of future ear infections (80 percent 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 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 allergy can block them, causing fluid to buildup in the inner ear. This fluid can become infected with bacteria or a virus.

Ear tubes keep this passage open and ventilate the ear through the drum, preventing fluid from backing up and getting infected. They also allow air into the ear and help regulate air pressure.

This content has been clinically reviewed by James Thomsen, MD, Pediatric Otolaryngologist.

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.