Ear tubes offer relief for many children with chronic ear infections

When their baby is rubbing or tugging at his ear, has a fever and is fussy, caretakers may suspect he or she has one of the most frequently occurring infectious diseases in children: an ear infection.

After respiratory tract infections, ear infections (also known by their medical term, otitis media) are the most common illness requiring a visit to a primary care provider in the U.S., said Dr. Kathleen Billings, an ear, nose and throat (ENT) physician and surgeon at Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago.

In young children, the Eustachian tube, which connects the back of throat to the space behind the ear drum, where the infection originates, is shorter and more horizontally oriented than in teens and adults. This, along with children's reduced ability to fight infections, predisposes them to ear infections.

In most cases, ear infections are treated effectively with antibiotics taken by mouth. But when children have more than three ear infections in six months, or fluid in the ear causing hearing loss for more than three months, they may be a good candidate for a surgical procedure that nearly 1 million kids in the U.S. each year undergo: ear tube placement.

Ear tubes, known medically as myringotomy tubes, are small tubes that are surgically placed in the eardrum by an ear, nose and throat surgeon while a child is asleep under general anesthesia. The tubes, which are painless for the child, help drain fluid out of the middle ear, where infections originate because bacteria can grow quickly there.

“The ear tube allows better ventilation of the middle ear space by equalizing the pressure across the ear canal,” Billings said.

The outpatient procedure typically takes just a few minutes, with the child going home the same day and returning to school or normal activity the next day. At Lurie Children's, a streamlined process even allows some families to have an ear tube placement procedure on the same day of their evaluation appointment. Depending on the type of ear tube inserted, most fall out nine to 18 months after they are placed. The ear drum gradually pushes the tube out over time, often leaving an intact ear drum.

“For children who qualify for them, ear tubes have been shown to improve the quality of life for the child (i.e., less pain and suffering from the ill effects of ear infections, less irritability, better sleep quality),” Billings said.

Still, not every child dealing with ear infections needs ear tubes. It is important that an ear, nose and throat specialist completes a thorough examination of a child and recommends the most appropriate treatment.

For more information about Lurie Children's ear tube placement options and ear, nose and throat specialists, or to schedule an appointment, visit

• Children's health is a continuing series. This week's article is courtesy of Ann & Robert H. Lurie Children's Hospital of Chicago. For more information, visit

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