An acute middle ear infection (Acute Otitis Media or AOM) is one of the most common childhood illnesses. It is characterized by the presence of middle ear fluid and inflammation, pain, fever, irritability and problems feeding and sleeping.
Most children have an occasional middle ear infection. However, some children, especially those in the first two years of life, are at the greatest risk for recurring ear infections (three or more over six months or four or more per year). Recurring infections cause frequent ear pain, hearing loss, fever, sleeplessness, developmental delays and time out of school. Hearing loss can delay speech development, cause communication and behavior problems and affect school performance.
What are the treatment options for recurring middle ear infections?
The goal is to treat the child to relieve these symptoms, improve quality of life and prevent hearing loss. A child with recurring ear infections is a candidate for antibiotic treatment, and/or surgery with placement of ear tubes. Ear tubes can reduce pain, improve hearing and reduce the number of infections.
What are ear tubes?
Ear tubes are tiny plastic tubes that are inserted into the eardrum to equalize pressure in the middle ear (the space behind the eardrum) with pressure outside the eardrum. Ear tubes improve drainage, prevent fluid accumulation, and ventilate the ear. Most ear tubes stay in place for 6-18 months before they are naturally pushed out by the eardrum. Some types of ear tubes are designed to stay for a longer period of 2-4 years.
While ear tubes are in place they can reduce the frequency of ear infections. If ear infections do occur, ear tubes permit drainage of the fluid that builds up with an acute infection, which leads to much less ear pain. Ear tubes can also improve hearing, speech, sleep, communication skills and behavior.
When are ear tubes recommended?
Ear tube insertion may be recommended for anyone with middle ear infection(s) and fluid buildup behind the eardrum that does not clear within 3 months. Note that ear tubes are also an option at any age for patients who have a severe ear infection that spreads to the nearby bones, nerves or brain, or suffers an injury due to a sudden change of pressure such as happens when flying or deep-sea diving.
Ear tube insertion
In children, ear tube insertion is done under general anesthesia and takes about 10 minutes with minimal post-surgical discomfort. Children can return to normal actually within a few hours. In fact, tube insertion is the most common childhood surgery in the US. In adults, tubes can be placed under local anesthesia in an in-office procedure. Typically no pain medication is required afterwards and adults may return to normal activities right away.