Painful ear infections are a rite of passage for children—by the age of five, nearly every child has experienced at least one episode. Most ear infections either resolve on their own (viral) or are effectively treated by antibiotics (bacterial). But sometimes ear infections and/or fluid in the middle ear may become a chronic problem leading to other issues, such as hearing loss, or behavior and speech problems. In these cases, insertion of an ear tube by an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist) may be considered.
What are ear tubes?
Ear tubes are tiny cylinders placed through the ear drum (tympanic membrane) to allow air into the middle ear. They also may be called tympanostomy tubes, myringotomy tubes, ventilation tubes, or PE (pressure equalization) tubes.
These tubes can be made out of various materials. There are two basic types of ear tubes: short-term and long-term. Short- term tubes are smaller and typically stay in place for six months to a year before falling out on their own. Long-term tubes are larger and have flanges that secure them in place for a longer period of time. Long-term tubes may fall out on their own, but removal by an otolaryngologist may be necessary.
Who needs ear tubes and why?
Ear tubes are often recommended when a person experiences repeated middle ear infection (acute otitis media) or has hearing loss caused by the persistent presence of middle ear fluid (otitis media with effusion). These conditions most commonly occur in children, but can also be present in teens and adults and can lead to speech and balance problems, hearing loss, or changes in the structure of the ear drum. Other less common conditions that may warrant the placement of ear tubes are malformation of the ear drum or eustachian tube, Down Syndrome, cleft palate, and barotrauma (injury to the middle ear caused by a reduction of air pressure, usually seen with altitude changes as in flying and scuba diving).
The average age for ear tube insertion is one to three years old. Inserting ear tubes may:
- Reduce the risk of future ear infection;
- Restore hearing loss caused by middle ear fluid;
- Improve speech problems and balance problems; and
- Improve behavior and sleep problems caused by chronic ear infections.
How are ear tubes inserted?
Ear tubes are inserted through an outpatient surgical procedure called a myringotomy. A myringotomy refers to an incision (small hole) in the ear drum or tympanic membrane. This is done under a surgical microscope with a small scalpel. If an ear tube is not inserted, the hole would heal and close within a few days. To prevent this, an ear tube is placed in the hole to keep it open and allow air to reach the middle ear space (ventilation).
What happens during surgery?
A general anesthetic is administered for young children. Some older children and adults may be able to tolerate the procedure without anesthetic. A myringotomy is performed and the fluid behind the ear drum (in the middle ear space) is suctioned out. The ear tube is then placed in the hole. Ear drops may be administered after the ear tube is placed and may be prescribed for a few days. The procedure usually lasts less than 15 minutes and patients awaken quickly.â€¨ â€¨Sometimes the otolaryngologist will recommend removal of the adenoid tissue (lymph tissue located in the upper airway behind the nose) when ear tubes are placed. This is often considered when a second or third tube insertion is necessary. Current research indicates that removing adenoid tissue concurrent with placement of ear tubes can reduce the risk of recurrent ear infections and the need for repeat surgery.
To avoid the possibility of bacteria entering the middle ear through the ventilation tube, physicians may recommend keeping ears dry by using ear plugs or other water-tight devices during bathing.
Tonsils and Adenoids:
Tonsils and adenoids are one of your first lines of defense as part of the immune system. They “sample” bacteria and viruses that enter the body through the mouth or nose, but they sometimes become infected. At times, they become more of a liability than an asset and may even cause airway obstruction or repeated bacterial infections. Your ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist can suggest the best treatment options.
What are tonsils and adenoids?
Tonsils and adenoids are similar to the lymph nodes or “glands” found in the neck, groin, and armpits. Tonsils are the two round lumps in the back of the throat. Adenoids are high in the throat behind the nose and the roof of the mouth (soft palate) and are not visible through the mouth or nose without special instruments.
What affects tonsils and adenoids?
The two most common problems affecting the tonsils and adenoids are recurrent infections of the nose and throat, and significant enlargement that causes nasal obstruction and/or breathing, swallowing, and sleep problems.
Abscesses around the tonsils, chronic tonsillitis, and infections of small pockets within the tonsils that produce foul-smelling white deposits can also affect the tonsils and adenoids, making them sore and swollen. Cancers of the tonsil, while uncommon, require early diagnosis and aggressive treatment.
When should I see a doctor?
You should see your doctor when you or your child experiences the common symptoms of infected or enlarged tonsils or adenoids.
Your physician will ask about problems of the ear, nose, and throat and examine the head and neck. He or she may use a small mirror or a flexible lighted instrument to see these areas.
Tonsillitis and its symptoms?
Tonsillitis is an infection of the tonsils. One sign is swelling of the tonsils. Other symptoms are:
- Redder than normal tonsils
- A white or yellow coating on the tonsils
- A slight voice change due to swelling
- Sore throat, sometimes accompanied by ear pain.
- Uncomfortable or painful swallowing
- Swollen lymph nodes (glands) in the neck
- Bad breath
Enlarged Tonsil and adenoids and their symptoms:
If your or your child’s adenoids are enlarged, it may be hard to breathe through the nose. If the tonsils and adenoids are enlarged, breathing during sleep may be disturbed. Other signs of adenoid and or tonsil enlargement are:
- Breathing through the mouth instead of the nose most of the time
- Nose sounds “blocked” when the person speaks
- Chronic runny nose
- Noisy breathing during the day
- Recurrent ear infections
- Snoring at night
- Restlessness during sleep, pauses in breathing for a few seconds at night (may indicate sleep apnea).
How are tonsil and adenoid diseases treated?
Bacterial infections of the tonsils, especially those caused by streptococcus, are first treated with antibiotics. Removal of the tonsils (tonsillectomy) and/or adenoids (adenoidectomy) may be recommended if there are recurrent infections despite antibiotic therapy, and/or difficulty breathing due to enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids. Such obstruction to breathing causes snoring and disturbed sleep that leads to daytime sleepiness, and may even cause behavioral or school performance problems in some children.â€¨ â€¨Chronic infections of the adenoids can affect other areas such as the eustachian tube–the passage between the back of the nose and the inside of the ear. This can lead to frequent ear infections and buildup of fluid in the middle ear that may cause temporary hearing loss. Studies also find that removal of the adenoids may help some children with chronic earaches accompanied by fluid in the middle ear (otitis media with effusion).
In adults, the possibility of cancer or a tumor may be another reason for removing the tonsils and adenoids. In some patients, especially those with infectious mononucleosis, severe enlargement may obstruct the airway. For those patients, treatment with steroids (e.g., prednisone) is sometimes helpful.
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