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Study Questions Placing Tubes to Treat Childhood Ear Infection Symptoms

A new study raises questions about the value of placing tubes in children's ears to treat fluid buildup caused by persistent infection. Our health correspondent Dr. Emily Senay explains.

It's one of the most common reasons little kids go to the doctor--an earache caused by an infection.

As a result of the infection, fluid can build up in the middle ear. This can result in even more infections and also hearing loss. If the fluid persists for longer than 3 months then doctors will often recommend the surgical placement of ear tubes to drain the middle ear .

Very often the reason doctors place the tubes is to restore hearing. The theory has been that kids who cannot hear are at risk for developmental delays in language, speech, and intelligence. But a study in this morning's New England Journal of Medicine finds that this theory may not hold up. .

The researchers looked at two groups of kids who had ear infections and fluid in the ear. One group got ear tubes as soon as the problem of fluid was found and another group got tubes after waiting 9 months. But no matter when the kids got the tubes, by 3 years of age, they were the same developmentally--no delays in either group. The researchers say this means that using tubes to prevent developmental delays is not warranted.

Does this mean we should stop putting these tubes in?

No. I spoke with a number of experts--including doctors from the American Academy of Otolaryngology who specialize in treating problems of the ear, nose, and throat. They say that there are other health problems that can arise if the fluid is not treated. This includes, in addition to hearing loss, serious complications like ruptured eardrums, infections of the bones and structures of the inner ear, benign tumors, and even meningitis of the brain.

This study only looked at kids until the age of 3. It may be that developmental delays won't become apparent until kids get older. So this study is not the final word. Parents should talk to their pediatricians and ear specialists if they have specific concerns .

Why are little kids so susceptible to ear infections?

The eustachian tube in a baby or a toddler is more horizontal during early development and therefore more prone to blockage. .

Is there anything you can do to prevent ear infections? . .

It's estimated that half of all ear infections are caused by different strains of pneumoccus bacteria, and there is an effective single-shot vaccine available that targets some of the more common forms. In other cases the blockage of the eustachian tube can be caused by the adenoids, which can be removed like tonsils. Another study in the journal this morning showed that kids who had their adenoids removed at the same time and had an ear tube placed were less likely to need more trips to the hospital.

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