ear tubes

Have You Heard About Ear Tube Surgery and Developmental Delays?

If you are a parent, you know that ear infections can be a frequent reason for a visit to your pediatrician. Ear infections are the most common childhood illness other than colds, and chronic infections can lead to delays in speech, language and learning development. For children who have frequent ear infections, ear tube surgery is a common procedure that drains fluid from the ear, prevents infection and helps children hear clearly.

What is an Ear Infection?

Generally speaking, there are two types of ear infections: middle ear infection and swimmer’s ear. Middle ear infection, known medically as otitis media, occurs in the space behind the eardrum, while swimmer’s ear, whose medical term is otitis externa, happens in the outer ear canal. The term “ear infection” usually refers to the middle ear infections which are the most common type.

“Middle ear infections are caused by bacteria or viruses that trap fluid behind the eardrum,” said Kara Kimberly, MD, an otolaryngologist with Penn Highlands Ear, Nose and Throat in Tyrone, Pennsylvania. “Fluid builds up when the tubes that connect the middle ear to the back of the nose do not properly drain the fluid. These tubes are smaller in children, and they often are too narrow to provide adequate drainage, which is why ear infections are more common in children than adults.”

Ear infections can sometimes occur before a child can talk, so parents should look for signs such as pulling at the ear, crying, fussiness and fluid leaking from the ear, as well as problems with balance, sleeping or hearing.

How do Chronic Ear Infections Lead to Developmental Delays?

Children learn to talk by listening to sounds in their environment, and when they experience prolonged hearing loss due to frequent or long-running ear infections, it can cause delays in speech and language development.

Signs of speech delay could include not babbling by four months of age, unable to string vowels together by six months, unable to say “mama” or “dada” by 12 months, difficulty imitating sounds by 18 months and unable to use verbal language to communicate more than immediate needs by 24 months.

What is ear tube surgery?

Ear infections are often treated successfully with antibiotics, but for children who experience recurrent infections that do not clear up easily, ear tube surgery may help.

“Ear tube surgery is a procedure where a small tube made of plastic, metal or Teflon is inserted into the eardrum to drain fluid that builds up,” said Gregory J. Roscoe, MD, DMD, MBA, an otolaryngologist on the staff of Penn Highlands Healthcare. “Most ear tubes fall out naturally within four to 18 months, at which point the natural tubes in the ear are hopefully working better.”

During the procedure, the child is placed under general anesthesia by a pediatric anesthesiologist. A pediatric ENT (ear, nose and throat) surgeon then makes a small hole in the eardrum, drains any fluid that has accumulated and inserts a small, hollow tube, which allows air to flow into the middle ear and prevents fluid from building up.

Ear tube surgery is the most common outpatient procedure performed on children under age 15 in the United States, and about one in every 15 children undergoes ear tube insertion by the age of 3. Children with abnormally shaped ears or who have had certain ear injuries may also benefit from ear tube surgery. If your child experiences frequent ear infections or you suspect that they may have a speech delay, consult your pediatrician.

Penn Highlands Healthcare offers otorhinolaryngology (ear, nose and throat) care for patients of all ages, including pediatric ear tube placement. Penn Highlands’ experienced team also treats patients with tonsil or adenoid infections, breathing problems, allergy and sinus issues, cleft palate, voice or swallowing problems, nose bleeds, gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD) and much more. To schedule an appointment or to learn more, visit www.phhealthcare.org/ent.