If left untreated, an ear infection can severely impact a child’s life, particularly if it’s recurring. Typically, treating this condition involves either antibiotics or tympanostomy tubes (ear tubes). The former is relatively self-explanatory.

As for the latter, an ear tube is a small, cylindrical medical device that is surgically implanted in a patient’s eardrum. Commonly made of either plastic or metal, ear tubes are intended to ventilate the middle and inner ear and prevent fluid buildup. This, in turn, inhibits the growth of harmful bacteria.

There’s some debate over whether or not ear tubes are a more effective option than antibiotics. Primarily, this is tied to concern about the overprescription of antibiotic treatments. The idea is that if a particular strain of bacteria is exposed too frequently to a specific medicine, it may develop resistance.

These seem like valid concerns at first glance. However,  a recent study published by The New England Journal of Medicine demonstrates otherwise. The study, which involved a group of children from six months to 35 months of age who suffered from recurrent ear infections, found that compared to antibiotics, ear tubes do not provide any notable benefits over antibiotics.

This aside, one of the most significant findings of the study was that most children tend to outgrow recurrent ear infections.

The children were divided at random into groups, with each group receiving one of the following treatments:

  • Oral antibiotics.
  • Topical antibiotic ear drops.
  • Ear tubes.

Researchers measured their results based on the average number of ear infections over a two year period throughout each child’s treatment. Upon the test’s conclusion, there was no significant difference between the three groups regarding severity or recurrence rate. There was also no noteworthy difference in the quality of life for any parents or children based on the treatment type.

This study validates the current approach taken by pediatricians and children’s hearing specialists. In general, they tend to begin with less invasive and expensive options such as antibiotics. It’s only once these less-invasive solutions have been exhausted that more complex alternatives such as surgical intervention are considered.

Ultimately, the decision of whether to prescribe ear tubes or antibiotics should be based on context.

As a parent, it’s important to understand that there’s always a tradeoff where medical treatments are concerned. All surgical procedures carry an element of risk, and even topical medications may have various side effects. There is also a growing number of people who cannot take antibiotics due to allergies or drug filler intolerance.

Invasive procedures still have their place as treatment options. However, even if they are more effective, they should be left to scenarios where other methods have been exhausted. It’s like taking apart your entire car engine to replace a single air filter.

Why go to all the trouble when there are simpler, more straightforward options?

About the Author:

Dr. Renee Flanagan is the Director of Audiological Care at HearingPlanet. She works with the training and development of Hearing Care staff so they may help the hearing impaired population by following best in class hearing healthcare practices.