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Ear Tubes Explained: How They Fight Ear Infections And When Kids Need Them

Doctor using otoscope instrument to check child's ear.
Doctor using otoscope instrument to check child's ear.

Ear infections are very common in young children. Most go away on their own, but some infections require antibiotics and other cases require further help from ear tubes.

Around 500,000 children of all ages receive ear tubes every year to help fight ear infections as their ears grow and mature.  Dr. Felicity Lenes-Voit, a pediatric otolaryngologist at Children’s Health and assistant professor at UT Southwestern Medical Center, explained what ear tubes do, and who needs them.


How do ear tubes work? Ear tubes are small tubes inserted into a child's eardrum to equalize pressure across the eardrum and allow infection to escape from the middle ear space behind the eardrum.

Can you still get ear infections with tubes? While ear tubes may reduce the number of ear infections, they don't stop infections completely. If your child does get an ear infection, there will be ear drainage and antibiotic ear drops can treat the infection.

A doctor may recommend ear tubes if your child has:

  • Hearing loss due to fluid build-up 
  • More than 3 ear infections in 6 months 
  • More than 4 ear infections in a year

What is ear tube surgery like? Surgery to place ear tubes ( myringotomy) is a 5 to 10 minute outpatient surgery performed under general anesthesia. Most children are back to normal by evening and can go back to school or daycare the next day. Parents can expect ear drainage for a week after surgery and will be given antibiotic ear drops to use for one week after surgery.


How long do ear tubes stay in? Ear tubes typically stay in place for six months to a year before falling out on their own. Once ear tubes fall out, your child may need another set placed if they still experience frequent ear infections. However, they may also be fine without ear tubes.


Ear infections: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment and Prevention

Copyright 2020 KERA. To see more, visit KERA.

Sam Baker is KERA's senior editor and local host for Morning Edition. The native of Beaumont, Texas, also edits and produces radio commentaries and Vital Signs, a series that's part of the station's Breakthroughs initiative. He also was the longtime host of KERA 13’s Emmy Award-winning public affairs program On the Record. He also won an Emmy in 2008 for KERA’s Sharing the Power: A Voter’s Voice Special, and has earned honors from the Associated Press and the Public Radio News Directors Inc.