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To understand earaches you must first know about the Eustachian tube, a narrow channel connecting the inside of the ear to the back of the throat, just above the soft palate. The tube allows drainage -- preventing fluid in the middle ear from building up and bursting the thin ear drum. In a healthy ear, the fluid drains down the tube, assisted by tiny hair cells, and is swallowed.
The tube maintains middle ear pressure equal to the air outside the ear, enabling free eardrum movement. Normally, the tube is collapsed most of the time in order to protect the middle ear from the many germs residing in the nose and mouth. Infection occurs when the Eustachian tube fails to do its job. When the tube becomes partially blocked, fluid accumulates in the middle ear, trapping bacteria already present, which then multiply. Additionally, as the air in the middle ear space escapes into the bloodstream, a partial vacuum is formed that absorbs more bacteria from the nose and mouth into the ear.
Why do children have more ear infections than adults?
Children have Eustachian tubes that are shorter, more horizontal, and straighter than those of adults. These factors make the journey for the bacteria quick and relatively easy. A child’s tube is also floppier, with a smaller opening that easily clogs.
Inflammation of the middle ear is known as “otitis media.” When infection occurs, the condition is called "acute otitis media." Acute otitis media occurs when a cold, allergy or upper respiratory infection, and the presence of bacteria or viruses lead to the accumulation of pus and mucus behind the eardrum, blocking the Eustachian tube.
When fluid forms in the middle ear, the condition is known as "otitis media with effusion," which can occur with or without infection. This fluid can remain in the ear for weeks to many months. When infected fluid persists or repeatedly returns, this is sometimes called “chronic middle ear infection.” If not treated, chronic ear infections have potentially serious consequences such as temporary or permanent hearing loss.
How are recurrent acute otitis media and otitis media with effusion treated?
Some child care advocates suggest doing nothing or administering antibiotics to treat the infection. More than 30 million prescriptions are written each year for ear infections, accounting for 25 percent of all antibiotics prescribed in the United States. However, antibiotics are not effective against viral ear infections (30 to 50 percent of such disorders), may cause uncomfortable side effects such as upset stomach, and can contribute to antibiotic resistance. Medical researchers believe that 25 percent of all pneumococcus strains, the most common bacterial cause of ear infections, are resistant to penicillin, and ten to 20 percent are resistant to amoxicillin.
Is surgery effective against recurrent otitis media and otitis media with effusion?
In some cases, surgery may be the only effective treatment for chronic ear infections. Some physicians recommend the use of laser myringotomy, using a laser to create a tiny hole in the eardrum. The treatment is done in the doctor's office using topical anesthesia (ear drops). Laser myringotomy works by providing several weeks of ventilation for the middle ear. Proponents suggest this can reduce the many courses of antibiotic treatment for severe ear infections and eliminates the need for surgical insertion of tubes with general anesthesia.
Before the procedure:
Prior to the procedure, the otolaryngologist will examine the patient for a description of the tympanic membrane (eardrum) and the middle ear space. An audiometry may be performed to assess patient hearing. A tympanometry will be performed that tests compliance of the tympanic membrane at various levels of air pressure. This test provides a measurement of the extent of middle ear effusion, Eustachian tube function, and otitis media.
The procedure: During the procedure, a small incision is made in the ear drum, the fluid is suctioned out, and a tube is placed. In young children, this is usually done under a light, general anesthesia; older patients may have the procedure performed under local anesthesia. There are over 50 different tube designs, all in different shapes, color, and composition. In general, smaller tubes stay in for a shorter duration, while large inner flanges hold the tube in place for a longer time. Some recent tubes have special surface coatings or treatments that may reduce the likelihood of infection.
After the procedure: Immediately after the procedure, the surgeon will examine the patient for persistent or profuse bleeding or discharge. After one month, the tube placement will be reviewed, and the patient’s hearing may be tested. Later, the physician will assess the tube’s effectiveness in alleviating the ear infection.
What is the most common surgical treatment for ear infections?
The most common surgical procedure administered to children under general anesthesia is myringotomy with insertion of tympanostomy tubes (TT). A tube is inserted in the middle ear to allow continuous drainage of fluid. The procedure is recommended for treatment of: chronic otitis media with effusion (lasting longer than three months), recurrent acute otitis media (more than three episodes in six months or more than four episodes in 12 months), severe acute otitis media, otitis media with effusion and a hearing loss greater than 30 dB, non-responsiveness to antibiotics, and impending mastoiditis or intra-cranial complication due to otitis media.
If the patient is age six or younger, it is recommended that tubes remain in place for up to two years. Most tubes will fall out without assistance. Otherwise, the specialist will determine when the tubes should be removed.
Your ENT physician will recommend the most effective treatment for your child’s ear infection.
What is otitis media?
Otitis media refers to inflammation of the middle ear. When infection occurs, the condition is called "acute otitis media." Acute otitis media occurs when a cold, allergy, or upper respiratory infection, and the presence of bacteria or viruses lead to the accumulation of pus and mucus behind the eardrum, blocking the Eustachian tube. This causes earache and swelling.
When fluid forms in the middle ear, the condition is known as "otitis media with effusion." This occurs in a recovering ear infection or when one is about to occur. Fluid can remain in the ear for weeks to many months. When a discharge from the ear persists or repeatedly returns, this is sometimes called chronic middle ear infection. Fluid can remain in the ear up to three weeks following the infection. If not treated, chronic ear infections have potentially serious consequences such as temporary or permanent hearing loss.
How does otitis media affect a child’s hearing?
All children with middle ear infection or fluid have some degree of hearing loss. The average hearing loss in ears with fluid is 24 decibels...equivalent to wearing ear plugs. (Twenty-four decibels is about the level of the very softest of whispers.) Thicker fluid can cause much more loss, up to 45 decibels (the range of conversational speech).
Your child may have hearing loss if he or she is unable to understand certain words and speaks louder than normal. Essentially, a child experiencing hearing loss from middle ear infections will hear muffled sounds and misunderstand speech rather than incur a complete hearing loss. Even so, the consequences can be significant – the young patient could permanently lose the ability to consistently understand speech in a noisy environment (such as a classroom) leading to a delay in learning important speech and language skills.
Types of hearing loss
Conductive hearing loss is a form of hearing impairment due to a lesion in the external auditory canal or middle ear. This form of hearing loss is usually temporary and found in those ages 40 or younger. Untreated chronic ear infections can lead to conductive hearing loss; draining the infected middle ear drum will usually return hearing to normal.
The other form of hearing loss is sensorineural hearing loss, hearing loss due to a lesion of the auditory division of the 8th cranial nerve or the inner ear. Historically, this condition is most prevalent in middle age and older patients; however, extended exposure to loud music can lead to sensorineural hearing loss in adolescents.
When should a hearing test be performed?
A hearing test should be performed for children who have frequent ear infections, hearing loss that lasts more than six weeks, or fluid in the middle ear for more than three months. There are a wide range of medical devices now available to test a child’s hearing, Eustachian tube function, and reliability of the ear drum. They include the otoscopy, tympanometer, and audiometer.
Do children lose their hearing for reasons other than chronic otitis media?
Children can incur temporary hearing loss for other reasons than chronic middle ear infection and Eustachian tube dysfunction. They include:
- Cerumen impaction (compressed earwax)
- Otitis externa: Inflammation of the external auditory canal, also called “swimmer's ear.”
- Cholesteatoma: A mass of horn shaped squamous cell epithelium and cholesterol in the middle ear, usually resulting from chronic otitis media.
- Otosclerosis: This is a disease of the otic capsule (bony labyrinth) in the ear, which is more prevalent in adults and characterized by formation of soft, vascular bone leading to progressive conductive hearing loss. It occurs due to fixation of the stapes (bones in the ear). Sensorineural hearing loss may result because of involvement of the cochlear duct.
- Trauma: A trauma to the ear or head may cause temporary or permanent hearing loss.
Insight into causes and treatment options
Who needs ear tubes and why?
What to expect after surgery
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, 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 plastic, metal or Teflon and may have a coating intended to reduce the possibility of infection. 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 is often 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 such as flying and scuba diving).
Each year, more than half a million ear tube surgeries are performed on children, making it the most common childhood surgery performed with anesthesia. 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 in the ear?
Ear tubes are inserted through an outpatient surgical procedure called a myringotomy. A myringotomy refers to an incision (a hole) in the ear drum or tympanic membrane. This is most often done under a surgical microscope with a small scalpel (tiny knife), but it can also be accomplished with a laser. 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 light general anesthetic (laughing gas) 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 necessary for a few days. The procedure usually lasts less than 15 minutes and patients awaken quickly.
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 repeat tube insertion is necessary. Current research indicates that removing adenoid tissue concurrent with placement of ear tubes can reduce the risk of recurrent ear infection and the need for repeat surgery.
What happens after surgery?
After surgery, the patient is monitored in the recovery room and will usually go home within an hour if no complications occur. Patients usually experience little or no postoperative pain but grogginess, irritability, and/or nausea from the anesthesia can occur temporarily.
Hearing loss caused by the presence of middle ear fluid is immediately resolved by surgery. Sometimes children can hear so much better that they complain that normal sounds seem too loud.
The otolaryngologist will provide specific postoperative instructions, including when to seek immediate attention and to set follow-up appointments. He or she may also prescribe antibiotic ear drops for a few days.
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, swimming and water activities. However, recent research suggests that protecting the ear may not be necessary, except when diving or engaging in water activities in unclean water such as lakes and rivers. Parents should consult with the treating physician about ear protection after surgery.
Consultation with an otolaryngologist (ear, nose and throat specialist) may be warranted if you or your child has experienced repeated or severe ear infections, ear infections that are not resolved with antibiotics, hearing loss due to fluid in the middle ear, barotrauma, or have an anatomic abnormality that inhibits drainage of the middle ear.
Myringotomy with insertion of ear tubes is an extremely common and safe procedure with minimal complications. When complications do occur, they may include:
Perforation—This can happen when a tube comes out or a long-term tube is removed and the hole in the tympanic membrane (ear drum) does not close. The hole can be patched through a minor surgical procedure called a tympanoplasty or myringoplasty.
Scarring—Any irritation of the ear drum (recurrent ear infections), including repeated insertion of ear tubes, can cause scarring called tympanosclerosis or myringosclerosis. In most cases, this causes no problem with hearing.
Infection—Ear infections can still occur in the middle ear or around the ear tube. However, these infections are usually less frequent, result in less hearing loss and are easier to treat—often only with ear drops. Sometimes an oral antibiotic is still needed.
Ear tubes come out too early or stay in too long—If an ear tube expels from the ear drum too soon (which is unpredictable), fluid may return and repeat surgery may be needed. Ear tubes that remain too long may result in perforation or may require removal by an otolaryngologist.
Any information provided on our website should not be considered medical advice or a substitute for a consultation with a provider at the Oklahoma City Ear, Nose & Throat Clinic. If you have a medical problem, contact us for appointment at 405.272.6027.