A young boy undergoes examination with an otoscope.

Consult with a physician if your child is experiencing chronic ear infections due to persistent inner ear fluid buildup.

Practically all children have one or more ear infections by the time they reach the age of five, but if those ear infections recur again and again, or if your child is subject to fluid buildup, your pediatrician may recommend that your child should have ear tubes installed. It’s dangerous to have fluid buildup in your child’s ears because it can eventually lead to hearing loss, and cause considerable discomfort as well. When your child doesn’t respond to other treatments for ear infections, ear tubes just might be the answer, and they can prevent the possibility of incurring long-term problems with hearing.

Why are There so Many ear Infections?

Ear infections occur when bacteria or viruses accumulate in your child’s middle ear, which is situated right behind the eardrums. Children are far more prone to developing ear infections, simply because their bodies are still growing and changing, at least far more than adult bodies are.

The way that fluids drain out of the ears is via the Eustachian tubes, and for kids, those tubes are smaller and nearly parallel to the ground, which means gravity has less effect and the ears won’t drain very well, even if your child is healthy. When Eustachian tubes get filled with mucus, often as a result of catching a cold, that lack of drainage becomes crucial, because bacteria can thrive in the Eustachian tubes, and that can lead to the development of infections.

Of course, for some kids, it just happens a lot more than for others, but it occurs far more with children as a general group, than it does for adults. When an infection develops in the Eustachian tubes, the fluid has a greater opportunity to build up in that portion of the middle ear, creating much more pressure and pain than normal. This is when you will observe such symptoms as fluid dribbling from the ears, difficulty sleeping, tugging at the ears, balance troubles, and much more fussiness or irritability than usual, particularly when your child is laying down.

A medical diagram illustrating the anatomy of the inner ear.

Children can experience a weak functionality in the Eustachian tubes, which normally allow fluid to drain from the inner ear, leading to infection.

When Does an ear Infection Require Treatment?

Initially, your doctor will probably await further developments, to see if the infection subsides on its own, particularly if it was triggered by a virus. In other situations, it may be necessary to treat the child with antibiotics in order to kill an infection. However, there are a great many children who develop infections that simply won’t clear up on their own.

For the most part, these won’t really lead to any lasting hearing problems, but if ear infections occur frequently, you may run the risk of developing hearing loss, experiencing delays with speech development and with social skills, physical holes or tears in the eardrum, and it’s even possible that an infection could spread throughout the head.

How can ear Tubes Help?

Some of the best candidates for ear tubes are children who routinely suffer three or more ear infections during a six-month period or those who go through a total of four or more in the course of a single year. Because this kind of frequency represents a danger to long-term health, it may be advisable to thwart the problem in its early stages.

Other good candidates for ear tubes are children who routinely experience fluid buildup, which then causes hearing loss, whether or not an infection has taken place. If your child has been given medication over a long period of time, or if several different programs of treatment have been prescribed without success, those are other scenarios where ear tubes may be the most viable treatment option.

What Exactly are ear Tubes?

The physical appearance of ear tubes is similar to that of a very, very small drinking straw, which means they are circular, hollow, and most often manufactured with plastic or metal. To insert the ear tube, your doctor will make a tiny opening in the child’s eardrum and then put the tube in, so that air is allowed to penetrate to the interior of the middle ear.

This allows airflow into the ear and it maintains even pressure between the inner ear and the exterior environment. It also allows for better drainage, so between the better drainage and the better airflow, the fluid has much less chance to build up, and that means bacteria don’t have a chance to accumulate and develop into infections.

For those children who have experienced hearing loss as a result of fluid buildup, the situation is cleared up almost immediately after ear tubes have been inserted. Children who have experienced delays in learning or social skills, generally improve within weeks of having the tubes inserted.

For some children, ear tubes are meant to be a temporary solution, and these will remain in place for between six and 18 months. After that time, they’ll simply fall out harmlessly on their own, with no intervention necessary. Other types of ear tubes are designed to be more of a permanent solution, and these generally need to be removed by a skilled doctor, if removal becomes necessary. In either case, once tubes have been removed, the eardrum opening gradually closes up all on its own.

A great many children wear ear tubes these days, and all of them are benefiting to some extent by doing so. They are safe, effective, and can make a very positive difference in your child’s life.