Ear infections are common childhood illnesses. Most children outgrow the infections after medical management, but some children need ear tubes to relieve the recurrent infections. Numerous ear tube myths exist, which cause additional concern for parents.
I have previously discussed how ear tubes may be useful to treat chronic ear infections. As a pediatric ear nose and throat (ENT) surgeon, I have found that many of my patients come to my office with a set of predetermined beliefs about ear tubes. These ear tube myths lead many parents to avoid a surgical procedure that could be extremely beneficial for their child.
Debunking these ear tube myths has become a requirement for nearly all of my discussions about ear tubes.
This blog is designed to highlight the top five ear tube myths addressed at each of my new consultations for ear tube surgery. I call these my five fantastical ear tube myths because it seems that every parent comes in with these beliefs. They sure must have some fantastical powers in order to convince everyone that they are true!
Parents equipped with proper information make better health care decisions for their children. Myths often lead to false hope or severe anxiety. The truth always lies somewhere in the middle.
1. Great! My child will not get any more ear infections.
“My friend told me that ear tubes will stop ear infections from happening.” Nope.
Tubes are placed to “bypass” the immature eustachian tube, allowing air to enter the ear drum and fluid to drain from the space behind the ear drum into the ear canal. The tubes make ear infections easier to treat by using ear drops instead of oral antibiotics; however, infections may continue to happen.
The underlying cause of ear infections will still need to be addressed. Remember some techniques to reduce the number of ear infections in your child.
2. My child will always need ear tubes.
“I heard that once a child has ear tubes, they will always need them put back in.” Nope.
In fact, 80 percent of children who have ear tubes placed never need them again. These children outgrow the infections as their eustachian tubes and immune systems mature.
The children who need a second or third set of ear tubes typically show signs of allergies, sinus infections, or enlarged adenoids. Another group of children who often require multiple sets of tubes include those with structural changes in the face (such as cleft palate) or persistent muscle weakness/delayed development (Down syndrome).
3. Permanent ear tubes exist.
“Because my child may need more sets of ear tubes, I would like to have a permanent tube inserted.” Nope.
All tubes are designed to be temporary and simply buy time for a child’s immune system and eustachian tubes to mature. This happens at different rates for different kids.
A small percentage will need a third set of tubes. These children usually demonstrate more severe episodes of allergies, sinus or structural changes which continue to impact the eustachian tube. At this time, a “T” tube is often inserted because they are designed to remain in the ear drum for 3-5 years.
But again... all tubes are temporary.
4. My child will dislodge the ear tubes.
“My child sticks her fingers in her ears, and I am afraid she will knock them out.” Nope
Ear tubes are placed directly into the ear drum. The ear drum cannot be reached with the tip of the finger.
Ear tubes do not hurt and do not encourage children to play with their ears more often. If your child’s ears continue to bother them after surgery, discuss these concerns with your ENT surgeon.
Many different problems can lead to ear pain, which is often called referred pain. Referred pain means pain felt in one part of the body is actually due to a problem in another area.
Children are able to resume normal activity 24 hours after surgery. This activity includes running, jumping, and contact sports which will not dislodge the tubes.
5. Ear plugs are needed when swimming or bathing.
“I heard kids cannot swim without ear plugs because the tubes cannot get wet.” Nope.
Now, this represents the most controversial myth. I was trained with the understanding that it was important to keep water out of the ears. I spent a large part of my practice prescribing ear plugs and headbands and even made very pretty custom ear plugs for older children.
However, as research has repeatedly shown, water in the ears does not lead to more ear infections. Yes, there are many reports on the internet that specify kids can swim in this type of water (clean, chlorinated pool water) but not that type of water (dirty lakes, rivers and oceans). These beliefs have simply not been shown to be true.
You should always follow the advice provided by your child’s physician because treatment plans are created specifically for each child. However, the Academy of Otolaryngology Head and Neck surgery issued the position statement indicating that they do not recommend routine water precautions after ear tubes.
The Academy of Otolaryngology is the governing body for all otolaryngologists (ENT surgeons), but each physician adopts recommendations based on their clinical judgement.
Unless your child specifically shows that extra precautions are needed, ROUTINE USE OF EAR PLUGS IS NO LONGER REQUIRED OR RECOMMENDED FOR SWIMMING WHILE EAR TUBES ARE IN PLACE.
If your child’s physician has recommended ear plugs, please ask them for their reasoning as there may be a particular reason your child has been recommended this care plan.
Of course, there are plenty of other concerns parents voice about ear tube surgery. These ear tube myths simply highlight the concerns that the vast majority of parents share. An upcoming blog will address 10 of the most common questions asked about ear tubes in my practice. Thanks for following!