If Your Child Has Repeated Bouts, See A Specialist
Pediatricians typically refer a child to an otolaryngologist -- an ear, nose, and throat specialist (ENT) -- when he's had three infections in six months or four within a year, but this isn't set in stone. "Kids who have frequent infections spend a lot of time feeling ill, and if fluid in their ears doesn't clear between infections it can interfere with hearing and language development," says Nancy Young, M.D., head of otology at Children's Memorial Hospital, in Chicago.
When an ENT examines your child, she'll discuss whether it's a good option to insert a tympanostomy tube (most commonly in both ears) to reduce the risk of infections and improve hearing. Although there's no maximum or minimum age for tubes, children usually get them between 1 and 3 years old. With about 500,000 kids a year undergoing the procedure, it's the most common surgery with anesthesia performed on children. The surgeon makes a tiny cut in the eardrum, suctions out the fluid, and then inserts a cylinder the length of an infant's pinkie nail into the hole to keep it open. Once the tubes are in, you won't be able to see them, but they allow air to flow into the middle ear and fluid to drain out. "Ear tubes don't improve the eustachian-tube function," says Max M. April, M.D., chairman of the pediatric committee of the American Academy of Otolaryngology-Head and Neck Surgery. "The hope is that once the tubes come out on their own after about a year, the child's eustachian tubes will have grown enough that his ear problems resolve." One study at Kaiser Permanente Medical Center, in Oakland, California, found that 90 percent of parents reported that their child's ear problems and overall quality of life improved in the year after tube surgery.