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Pitt Researchers Say Ear Tubes May Not Be The Best Way To Treat Chronic Ear Infections

PITTSBURGH (KDKA) - Parker Womeldorff had ear tubes placed because of recurrent ear infections.

"He had his first ear infection, went through the treatment and at every follow up he had an ear infection," says his mother, Health Womeldorff.

These tubes require surgery, which carries the tiny risk of anesthesia, scarring and ripping.

"You don't want your child to go through any sort of procedure at all," Heather says.

The tubes go through a small hole the doctor makes in the child's eardrum. This allows fluid behind the middle ear to drain.

"The tube works by ventilating, by doing the job that the eustachian tube, the tube that connects the middle ear with the back of the throat, does, which is bring in air into the middle ear," explains Dr. Alejandro Hoberman, the lead author and pediatrician at Children's Hospital of Pittsburgh.

Research to support tubes comes from an era before vaccines to prevent ear infections.

Now a study from the University of Pittsburgh shows that when it comes to preventing recurrent ear infections in kids 6 months to 3 years old, there's no difference between tubes and antibiotics.

"Two-hundred-fifty children enrolled in the study, most of them in the Pittsburgh region," says Dr. Hoberman.

Half of them got tubes, the other half, antibiotics. With two years of follow up, there was no difference in how often or how bad the ear infections were.

"These are very hard studies to do," says Dr. Hoberman, "This is the largest that I'm aware of."

The ones treated with medicine developed infections two months earlier in the study than the ones who got tubes, so they were prescribed more antibiotics. This raises a concern for antibiotic-resistant germs.

"If they are left with resistant bacteria, the next ear infection will be harder to treat," Dr. Hoberman explains.

But the kids had nose and throat cultures when they were healthy and when they had ear infections, and they had no evidence of resistance, reassuring the researchers it was safe to treat with antibiotics.

Dr. Hoberman hopes his research will change the treatment guidelines. "Having said so, changing guidelines, changing practice is a hard task. And we know that many times it take up to 10 years to change what people do in treatment. I'm gonna change what I do."

That is, he won't rush to tubes unless a child is having very frequent ear infections.

For Parker, with nine courses of antibiotics in five months, tubes were appropriate.

"It was almost five months straight of infections nonstop," says Heather, "We've had zero infections. We've had zero issues since we got them."

It's a relief for Heather.

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