What are ear tubes?
APainful 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 surgeon) may be considered.
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 of 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 (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 should I expect after a myringotomy?
After surgery, the patient is monitored in the recovery room and will usually go home within an hour if no complications are present. 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 for each patient including when to seek immediate attention and 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.
Are there any complications with ear tube insertion?
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 in-sertion of ear tubes, can cause scarring called tympanosclerosis or myringosclerosis. In most cases, this causes no problems 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 the otolaryngologist.
Doctor, can you explain tonsils and adenoids?
Tonsils and adenoids are masses of tissue that are similar to the lymph nodes or “glands” found in the neck, groin, and armpits. Tonsils are the two masses on 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 without special instruments.
Tonsils and adenoids are near the entrance to the breathing passages where they can catch incoming germs, which cause infections. They “sample” bacteria and viruses and can become infected themselves. Scientists believe they work as part of the body’s immune system by filtering germs that attempt to invade the body, and that they help to develop antibodies to germs.
This happens primarily during the first few years of life, becoming less important as we get older. Children who must have their tonsils and adenoids removed suffer no loss in their resistance.
What affects tonsils and adenoids?
The most common problems affecting the tonsils and adenoids are recurrent infections (throat or ear) and significant enlargement or obstruction that causes breathing and swallowing problems.
Abscesses around the tonsils, chronic tonsillitis, and infections of small pockets within the tonsils that produce foul-smelling, cheese-like formations can also affect the tonsils and adenoids, making them sore and swollen. Tumors are rare, but can grow on the tonsils.
You should see your doctor when you or your child suffer the common symptoms of infected or enlarged tonsils or adenoids.
What should I expect during a tonsil/adenoid exam?
The primary methods used to check tonsils and adenoids are:
- Medical history
- Physical examination
- Throat cultures/Strep tests
- Blood tests
Your physician will ask about problems of the ear, nose, and throat and examine the head and neck. He or she will use a small mirror or a flexible lighted instrument to see these areas.
Cultures/strep tests are important in diagnosing certain infections in the throat, especially “strep” throat.
X-rays are sometimes helpful in determining the size and shape of the adenoids. Blood tests can determine problems such as mononucleosis.
How are tonsil and adenoid diseases treated?
Bacterial infections of the tonsils, especially those caused by streptococcus, are first treated with antibiotics. Sometimes, removal of the tonsils and/or adenoids may be recommended. The two primary reasons for tonsil and/or adenoid removal are (1) recurrent infection despite antibiotic therapy and (2) difficulty breathing due to enlarged tonsils and/or adenoids.
Such obstruction to breathing causes snoring and disturbed sleep that leads to daytime sleepiness in adults and behavioral problems in children. Some orthodontists believe chronic mouth breathing from large tonsils and adenoids causes malformations of the face and improper alignment of the teeth.
Chronic infection 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 potential hearing loss.
Recent studies indicate adenoidectomy may be a beneficial treatment for 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., cortisone) is sometimes helpful.
What are the symptoms of Tonsillitis?
Tonsillitis is an infection in one or both tonsils. One sign is swelling of the tonsils. Other signs or symptoms are:
- Redder than normal tonsils
- A white or yellow coating on the tonsils
- A slight voice change due to swelling
- Sore throat
- Uncomfortable or painful swallowing
- Swollen lymph nodes (glands) in the neck
- Bad breath
What are the symptoms of enlarged adenoids?
If you or your child’s adenoids are enlarged, it may be hard to breathe through the nose.
Other signs of constant enlargement are:
- Breathing through the mouth instead of the nose most of the time
- Nose sounds “blocked” when the person speaks
- Noisy breathing during the day
- Recurrent ear infections
- Snoring at night
- Breathing stops for a few seconds at night during snoring or loud breathing (sleep apnea)
How do I prepare my child for surgery?
Your child: Talk to your child about his/her feelings and provide strong reassurance and support throughout the process. Encourage the idea that the procedure will make him/her healthier. Be with your child as much as possible before and after the surgery. Tell him/her to expect a sore throat after surgery. Reassure your child that the operation does not remove any important parts of the body, and that he/she will not look any different afterward. If your child has a friend who has had this surgery, it may be helpful to talk about it with that friend.
Adults and children: For at least two weeks before any surgery, the patient should refrain from taking aspirin or other medications containing aspirin. (WARNING: Children should never be given aspirin because of the risk of developing Reye’s syndrome).
If the patient or patient’s family has had any problems with anesthesia, the surgeon should be informed. If the patient is taking any other medications, has sickle cell anemia, has a bleeding disorder, is pregnant, has concerns about the transfusion of blood, or has used steroids in the past year, the surgeon should be informed.
A blood test and possibly a urine test may be required prior to surgery.
Generally, after midnight prior to the operation, nothing (chewing gum, mouthwashes, throat lozenges, toothpaste, water) may be taken by mouth. Anything in the stomach may be vomited when anesthesia is induced, and this is dangerous.
When the patient arrives at the hospital or surgery center, the anesthesiologist or nursing staff may meet with the patient and family to review the patient’s history. The patient will then be taken to the operating room and given an anesthetic. Intravenous fluids are usually given during and after surgery.
After the operation, the patient will be taken to the recovery area. Recovery room staff will observe the patient until discharged. Every patient is special, and recovery times vary for each individual. Many patients are released after 2–10 hours. Others are kept overnight. Intensive care may be needed for select cases.
Your ENT specialist will provide you with the details of pre-operative and postoperative care and answer any questions you may have.
Are there any postoperative complications?
There are several postoperative symptoms that may arise. These include (but are not limited to) swallowing problems, vomiting, fever, throat pain, and ear pain. Occasionally, bleeding may occur after surgery. If the patient has any bleeding, your surgeon should be notified immediately.
How do I know when my child has pediatric sinusitis?
Your child’s sinuses are not fully developed until age 20. Although small, the maxillary (behind the cheek) and ethmoid (between the eyes) sinuses are present at birth. Unlike in adults, pediatric sinusitis is difficult to diagnose because symptoms can be subtle and the causes complex.
The following symptoms may indicate a sinus infection in your child:
- a “cold” lasting more than 10 to 14 days, sometimes with a low-grade fever
- thick, yellow-green nasal drainage
- post-nasal drip, sometimes leading to or exhibited as sore throat, cough, bad breath, nausea, and/or vomiting
- headache, usually in children age six or older
- irritability or fatigue
- swelling around the eyes
Young children have immature immune systems and are more prone to infections of the nose, sinus, and ears, especially in the first several years of life. These are most frequently caused by viral infections (colds), and they may be aggravated by allergies. However, when your child remains ill beyond the usual week to ten days, a serious sinus infection is likely.
You can reduce the risk of sinus infections for your child by reducing exposure to known allergens and pollutants such as tobacco smoke, reducing his/her time at day care, and treating stomach acid reflux disease.
How will the doctor treat sinusitis?
Acute sinusitis: Most children respond very well to antibiotic therapy. Nasal decongestants or topical nasal sprays may also be prescribed for short-term relief of stuffiness. Nasal saline (saltwater) drops or gentle spray can be helpful in thinning secretions and improving mucous membrane function. If your child has acute sinusitis, symptoms should improve within the first few days. Even if your child improves dramatically within the first week of treatment, it is important that you continue therapy until all the antibiotics have been taken. Your doctor may decide to treat your child with additional medicines if he/she has allergies or other conditions that make the sinus infection worse.
Chronic sinusitis: If your child suffers from one or more symptoms of sinusitis for at least 12 weeks, he or she may have chronic sinusitis. Chronic sinusitis or recurrent episodes of acute sinusitis numbering more than four to six per year are indications that you should seek consultation with an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) specialist. The ENT may recommend medical or surgical treatment of the sinuses.
Diagnosis of sinusitis: If your child sees an ENT specialist, the doctor will examine his/her ears, nose, and throat. A thorough history and examination usually leads to the correct diagnosis. Occasionally, special instruments will be used to look into the nose during the office visit. An x-ray called a CT scan may help to determine how your child’s sinuses are formed, where the blockage has occurred, and the reliability of a sinusitis diagnosis.
When is surgery for pediatric sinusitis necessary?
Only a small percentage of children with severe or persistent sinusitis require surgery to relieve symptoms that do not respond to medical therapy. Using an instrument called an endoscope, the ENT surgeon opens the natural drainage pathways of your child’s sinuses and makes the narrow passages wider. This also allows for culturing so that antibiotics can be directed specifically against your child’s sinus infection. Opening up the sinuses and allowing air to circulate usually results in a reduction in the number and severity of sinus infections.
Your doctor may advise removing adenoid tissue from behind the nose as part of the treatment for sinusitis. Although the adenoid tissue does not directly block the sinuses, infection of the adenoid tissue, called adenoiditis, or obstruction of the back of the nose, can cause many of the symptoms that are similar to sinusitis, namely, runny nose, stuffy nose, post-nasal drip, bad breath, cough, and headache.
Sinusitis in children is different than sinusitis in adults. Children more often demonstrate a cough, bad breath, crankiness, low energy, and swelling around the eyes along with a thick yellow-green nasal or post-nasal drip. Once the diagnosis of sinusitis has been made, children are successfully treated with antibiotic therapy in most cases. If medical therapy fails, surgical therapy can be used as a safe and effective method of treating sinus disease in children.