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Medwatch: When ear tubes are needed

Updated: Jun. 7, 2021 at 10:43 AM CDT
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LAWTON, Okla. (KSWO) - Ear infections are common in children, and most go away on their own or can be treated with medicine, but if your child has chronic ear infections, they may need to see an Ear, Nose, and Throat specialist. Candace Flournoy, a nurse practitioner at Comanche County Memorial Hospital’s ENT clinic, said most of the patients she sees are kids. Ear infections are most common in young children between 6 and 24-months, but they can be older. She said the infection occurs in the middle ear.

“Kids get upper respiratory infections or sinus infections and sometimes those germs and that bacteria or viruses get in their middle ear space and cause an infection because it can be really uncomfortable for patients,” Flournoy said.

Flournoy said it can cause a fever, decreased appetite, trouble sleeping, and fussiness. An ear infection usually happens after fluid gets stuck in the middle ear, which is past the eardrum. She said understanding the anatomy of the ear makes it easier to understand how it can happen.

“The ear canal, the outer ear, is separated from the middle ear by the eardrum,” she said. “And then the middle ear connects to the back of the nose and back of the throat by the eustachian tube. That eustachian tube should function to drain fluid from the middle ear like when you yawn or open your mouth wide, it should help to drain that fluid.”

Flournoy said tubes are much smaller in children and can be difficult for fluid to drain out properly, and if the tubes are swollen or blocked due to respiratory illness or cold, fluid may not be able to drain at all.

Dr. James Rebik, an ear, nose, throat surgeon at CCMH, said a surgical procedure to insert ear tubes can help if an infection keeps coming back. It’s a same-day surgery he performs to improve airflow and prevent fluid backup in the middle ear.

“I’ll look at the ear tube through the ear canal,” Dr. Rebik said. “And I’ll take a little instrument, and I’ll make an incision through the eardrum, and if there’s any fluid in there, I’ll go ahead and suction it out before I place the tube.”

As for the tubes, they’re smaller than some may think.

“The most common one that we use would be the one that’s the most upper one,” he said. “It will stay in place usually for 6-12 months on the average.”

He said the eardrum will grow around it and cause it to fall out. Most kids will only need ear tubes once if they need them in the first place.

Flournoy said getting ear tubes after multiple infections is important because you don’t want your kiddo on antibiotics repeatedly, and you don’t want the ear infections to impact their hearing.

“A lot of times, these are occurring during the formative years, when kids are learning to speak, and their speech is developing, and so it’s very important that they can hear well in order to be able to develop their speech appropriately,” he said.

There are some things you can do to help prevent ear infections, doctors recommend children get their annual flu shot, wash hands frequently to prevent the spread of germs, avoid exposing them to cigarette smoke and try not to lay your baby down for a nap or at night with a bottle.

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