ENTs Discourage Ear Tubes for Recurrent AOM Without Effusion

Christine Kilgore

February 16, 2022

A practice guideline update from the ENT community on tympanostomy tubes in children reaffirms that tube insertion should not be considered in cases of otitis media with effusion (OME) lasting less than 3 months, or in children with recurrent acute otitis media (AOM) without middle ear effusion at the time of assessment for the procedure.

New in the update from the American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation (AAO-HNSF) is a strong recommendation for timely follow-up after surgery and recommendations against both routine use of prophylactic antibiotic ear drops after surgery and the initial use of long-term tubes except when there are specific reasons for doing so.

The update also expands the list of risk factors that place children with OME at increased risk of developmental difficulties – and often in need of timely ear tube placement – to include intellectual disability, learning disorder, and attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder.

"Most of what we said in the 2013 [original] guideline was good and still valid ... and [important for] pediatricians, who are the key players" in managing otitis media, Jesse Hackell, MD, one of two general pediatricians who served on the Academy's guideline update committee, said in an interview.

OME spontaneously clears up to 90% of the time within 3 months, said Hackell, of Pomona (New York) Pediatrics, and chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) Committee on Practice and Ambulatory Medicine.

The updated guideline, for children 6 months to 12 years, reaffirms a recommendation that tube insertion be offered to children with "bilateral OME for 3 months or longer AND documented hearing difficulties."

It also reaffirms "options" (a lesser quality of evidence) that in the absence of hearing difficulties, surgery may be performed for children with chronic OME (3 months or longer) in one or both ears if 1) they are at increased risk of developmental difficulties from OME or 2) effusion is likely contributing to balance problems, poor school performance, behavioral problems, ear discomfort, or reduced quality of life.

Children with chronic OME who do not undergo surgery should be reevaluated at 3- to 6-month intervals and monitored until effusion is no longer present, significant hearing loss is detected, or structural abnormalities of the tympanic membrane or middle ear are detected, the update again recommends.

Tympanostomy tube placement is the most common ambulatory surgery performed on children in the United States, the guideline authors say. In 2014, about 9% of children had undergone the surgery, they wrote, noting also that "tubes were placed in 25%-30% of children with frequent ear infections."

Recurrent AOM

The AAO-HNSF guidance regarding tympanostomy tubes for OME is similar overall to management guidance issued by the AAP in its clinical practice guideline on OME.

The organizations differ, however, on their guidance for tube insertion for recurrent AOM. In its 2013 clinical practice guideline on AOM, the AAP recommends that clinicians may offer tube insertion for recurrent AOM, with no mention of the presence or absence of persistent fluid as a consideration.

According to the AAO-HNSF update, grade A evidence, including some research published since its original 2013 guideline, has shown little benefit to tube insertion in reducing the incidence of AOM in otherwise healthy children who don't have middle ear effusion.

One study published in 2019 assessed outcomes after watchful waiting and found that only one-third of 123 children eventually went on to tympanostomy tube placement, noted Richard M. Rosenfeld, MD, distinguished professor and chairman of otolaryngology at SUNY Downstate Health Sciences University in Brooklyn, N.Y., and lead author of the original and updated guidelines.

In practice, "the real question [for the ENT] is the future. If the ears are perfectly clear, will tubes really reduce the frequency of infections going forward?" Rosenfeld said in an interview. "All the evidence seems to say no, it doesn't make much of a difference."

Hackell said he's confident that the question "is settled enough." While there "could be stronger research and higher quality studies, the evidence is still pretty good to suggest you gain little to no benefit with tubes when you're dealing with recurrent AOM without effusion," he said.

Asked to comment on the ENT update and its guidance on tympanostomy tubes for children with recurrent AOM, an AAP spokesperson said the "issue is under review" and that the AAP did not currently have a statement.

At-Risk Children

The AAO-HNSF update renews a recommendation to evaluate children with either recurrent AOM or OME of any duration for increased risk for speech, language, or learning problems from OME because of baseline factors (sensory, physical, cognitive, or behavioral).

When OME becomes chronic – or when a tympanogram gives a flat-line reading – OME is likely to persist, and families of at-risk children especially should be encouraged to pursue tube placement, Rosenfeld said.

Despite prior guidance to this effect, he said, ear tubes are being underutilized in at-risk children, with effusion being missed in primary care and with ENTs not expediting tube placement upon referral.

"These children have learning issues, cognitive issues, developmental issues," he said in the interview. "It's a population that does very poorly with ears full of fluid ... and despite guidance suggesting these children should be prioritized with tubes, it doesn't seem to be happening enough."

Formulating guidelines for at-risk children is challenging because they are often excluded from trials, Rosenfeld said, which limits evidence about the benefits of tubes and limits the strength of recommendations.

The addition of attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, intellectual disability, and learning disorder to the list of risk factors is notable, Hackell said. (The list includes autism spectrum disorder, developmental delay, and suspected or confirmed speech and language delay or disorder.)

"We know that kids with ADHD take in and process information a little differently ... it may be harder to get their attention with auditory stimulation," he said. "So anything that would impact the taking in of information even for a short period of time increases their risk."

Surgical Practice

ENTs are advised in the new guidance to use long-term tubes and perioperative antibiotic ear drops more judiciously. "Long-term tubes have a role, but there are some doctors who routinely use them, even for a first-time surgery," said Rosenfeld.

Overuse of long-term tubes results in a higher incidence of tympanic membrane perforation, chronic drainage, and other complications, as well as greater need for long-term follow-up. "There needs to be a reason – something to justify the need for prolonged ventilation," he said.

Perioperative antibiotic ear drops are often administered during surgery and then prescribed routinely for all children afterward, but research has shown that saline irrigation during surgery and a single application of antibiotic/steroid drops is similarly efficacious in preventing otorrhea, the guideline says. Antibiotic ear drops are also "expensive," noted Hackell. "There's not enough benefit to justify it."

The update also more explicitly advises selective use of adenoidectomy. A new option says that clinicians may perform the procedure as an adjunct to tube insertion for children 4 years or older to potentially reduce the future incidence of recurrent OME or the need for repeat surgery.

However, in younger children, it should not be offered unless there are symptoms directly related to adenoid infection or nasal obstruction. "Under 4 years, there's no primary benefit for the ears," said Rosenfeld.

Follow-up with the surgeon after tympanostomy tube insertion should occur within 3 months to assess outcomes and educate the family, the update strongly recommends.

And pediatricians should know, Hackell notes, that clinical evidence continues to show that earplugs and other water precautions are not routinely needed for children who have tubes in place. A good approach, the guideline says, is to "first avoid water precautions and instead reserve them for children with recurrent or persistent tympanostomy tube otorrhea."

Asked to comment on the guideline update, Tim Joss, MD, MPH, who practices combined internal medicine/pediatrics in Seattle and is an editorial advisory board member of Pediatric News, noted the inclusion of patient information sheets with frequently asked questions – resources that can be useful for guiding parents through what's often a shared decision-making process.

Neither Rosenfeld nor Hackell reported any disclosures. Other members of the guideline update committee reported various book royalties, consulting fees, and other disclosures. Joss reported he has no connections to the guideline authors.

This article originally appeared on MDedge.com, part of the Medscape Professional Network.

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