Let's learn something: Ear infections and tubes
'The Eustachian Tube - Dictator of Ear Happiness'
Ok let's learn something about "ear infections and tubes!"
I should call this: "The Eustachian Tube - Dictator of Ear Happiness." More later on that.
Few things I want to put out there first:
1) There are two kinds of ear infections: middle ear infections (otitis media - the type you get tubes for) and otitis externa (outer ear infection, no tubes for this)
2) "Water in the ear" from a bath or pool typically does NOT cause middle ear infections! It CAN cause something called "otitis externa," or, "swimmer's ear," which is an ear canal/skin infection that may require ear drops to improve. I'm not going to talk about that kind of ear infection today. From here on out when I say "ear infection," I mean the middle-ear kind.
3) Ear infections are incredibly common. Do NOT freak out if your child gets one. Five out of six kids will have at least one by their third birthday (and most will have more than one).
4) A "red ear" does not mean a child has an ear infection.
5) A "baby messing with an ear" does not necessarily mean they have an ear infection.
6) A fever with your child's cold does not necessarily mean an ear infection is happening. The only way to know if your child has an ear infection is to have the ear drum examined by a medical provider.
Why do ear infections happen? Well....snot. And inflammation. Snot and inflammation from colds. Snot and inflammation from allergies. Snot and inflammation from just walking into the door of daycare or that play date.
The inflammation blocks a vital little guy called a eustachian tube. Look at the picture to the left. Find the eustachian tubes. See how they're a little exit canal for the inner part of the ear? They drain the ear. An infant's eustachian tube is smaller than an adults', and more horizontal. That causes problems. It just doesn't drain well.
It swells up, gets blocked off, and the snot in the middle ear has nowhere to go. Once the cold or allergies are better, it de-swells, opens up, and voila!, ear infection is gone. All the junk drains out. The baby's eustachian tube is different than an older kid's, or adult's. This fact along with the fact that babies and toddlers are snot machines and always putting things in their mouths - that's why they get more ear infections. We hope they "outgrow" this eustachian tube problem (and hands in mouth problem) by age 2-3.
It can take 3 weeks to 3 months for the fluid to drain out of the ear. And your kiddo may have an ear infection and you'd never know about it, and that's ok - because they usually get better on their own! Most ear infections are VIRAL! That means the fluid just has a virus in it, and it will all go away on its own thanks to our great immune systems.
When I look into a child's ear, I examine the ear drum to know if they have an infection or not. When there is no infection, an ear drum is translucent, kind of like a shower door. When it is infected, it is red, bulging out, and full of what looks like pus. Sometimes this is just viral fluid. But sometimes, while that eustachian tube is all swollen and blocked off, the liquid stuck in the inner ear gets bacteria in it. We can tell the difference by looking in there. And that is why some children need an antibiotic for some ear infections. To kill the bacteria while we wait for the eustachian tubes to un-swell.
So...who needs "tubes?"
There are a few things that cause kids to get lots of ear infections:
1. Being in a child care setting (lots of kids...lots of snot).
2. Secondhand tobacco smoke exposure (as if you needed another reason to quit).
3. Taking a bottle to bed (when the child lays down and drinks, the milk actually puddles in the area where the eustachian tube meets the nose/throat and causes swelling and bacteria to hang out back there - this habit also causes cavities - no bottles in bed, folks!!)
Some kids have really tiny eustachian tubes that stay really swollen all the time. If they're around other kids a lot, like day care, they get tons of colds each year, and that's normal. However their little eustachian tubes mostly stay swollen shut, sometimes for months at a time. And we see them in our office 1-2 times a month for repeated ear infections.
I guess a "rule" I follow is that if a child gets 5-6 bacterial ear infections in a year, or more than 3 months of constant fluid in the ear, I will send them to the Ear-Nose-Throat doctor to get tympanostomy tubes (or just "tubes", as most people know them) put in. This brilliant procedure creates a little "canal" for the fluid to escape from the inside of the ear. They fall out in about a year, when we hope they've "outgrown" the problem.
Sometimes, I send a kid to ENT if I've put them on 3 or more rounds of antibiotics and they're still having fevers and still in pain and I just can't get that dang fluid to go away. Who wants a kid on antibiotics for that long!? Another reason to see the ENT is if the fluid is making it hard for a child to hear. When a small child can't hear, they can't learn to speak. I've seen kiddos get ear tubes and within 1 week they are talking up a storm! It's amazing.
However, surgeries and anesthesia comes with risks. If you're worried your child has had too many ear infections, talk to us. We will let you know if we think it's time to see the ENT.
Wow...this was long. I hope it helped you learn something about one of the most common ailments we see in the office!
Dr. Diane Arnaout joined the Cook Children's Willow Park practice in 2011. Dr. Arnaout was born and raised in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. She served as a leader on the medical education committees during her internship and residency in pediatrics at the University of Texas Health Science Center in the Texas Medical Center at Houston, Texas.