Health 101: Ear Infections

Does my child need ear tubes?

If your kid's prone to repeat ear infections -- three to four over a six-month period or six or more infections in a year -- or has persistent fluid build-up that won't go away, he may benefit from having tubes inserted in his ears.

The procedure -- called a myringotomy, or tympanostomy tube placement -- is one of the most common childhood surgeries; more than one million are performed every year. It's typically an outpatient procedure, done under general anesthesia in about 10 to 15 minutes. A small incision is made in the child's eardrum so a small metal or plastic tube can be inserted. The tube helps to ventilate the middle ear, equalize pressure, and allow the eardrum to properly transmit sound. Tubes will normally stay in place for 6 to 18 months, and then usually fall out on their own.

Another, though far less common, treatment is removing the adenoids -- infection-fighting immune system cells in the back of the throat. "Tonsils and lymph nodes in the throat and neck serve the same infection-fighting function as the adenoids, so your child will still be protected from germs without adenoids," says McClay. "However, this is generally only recommended for kids older than 4, whose immune systems are more developed."

These procedures are often recommended not just to prevent repeat infections, but because some experts believe that babies and children who have persistent ear infections are more prone to hearing loss, which may in turn affect language development. Not all doctors believe tubes or adenoid removal are necessary however, so make sure to have a thorough chat with your pediatrician (and possibly seek a second opinion) before deciding if they're right for your child.

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