Q. Our 18-month-old son seems to have an ear infection every other month. How do I know when it’s time to consult a specialist?
A. Ear infections (otitis media) are some of the most common childhood ailments. Otitis media is an infection in the middle ear that is usually preceded by a cold. Nasal congestion, usually due to a cold or allergies, can block the eustachian tubes, which drain middle ear fluid. Once fluid is trapped in this space, it becomes prone to bacterial growth.
Most of the time, the infection is treated with oral antibiotics. A child who regularly has ear infections may be referred to an ENT surgeon for tympanostomy tube – or “ear tube” – placement. Ear tubes are tiny tubes placed in the ear drum. They allow the trapped fluid to drain into the ear canal, resulting in improved hearing and fewer future ear infections.
Children are typically referred after having three to four ear infections in a six-month period. Other factors are considered, however, such as how difficult the infections have been to treat, time of year, age of the child, any underlying medical problems and whether the ear infections are affecting speech development. For example, a child may be referred sooner if the infections have required multiple antibiotic courses and there are signs of speech delay.
A half million children get ear tubes each year. While it’s a common surgery, it is still surgery, so the risks and benefits must be weighed carefully. Every case is slightly different, so it’s important to stay in contact with your child’s health care provider regarding your concerns.