Young Children Quickly Outgrow the Need for Ear Tubes

Michael E. Pichichero, MD


February 15, 2023

About half a million children between the ages of 1 and 3 years old have ear tube surgery in the United States every year at an annual cost exceeding $2 billion. It is the most common childhood surgery performed with anesthesia. It is a surgery commonly performed on children in most other high- and middle-income countries.

Michael E. Pichichero, MD

My group recently published a paper on the timing and necessity of tympanostomy tubes for recurrent otitis media in young children. The primary objective was to quantitatively examine recurrent acute otitis media (AOM) incidence with respect to age of occurrence, the influence of daycare attendance, and other risk factors in individual children. We introduced the concept of a “window of susceptibility” to AOM as new terminology referring to a child who has two or more closely spaced AOM occurrences during a window of time. We sought to know what to expect and how to advise the parent when a child presents with closely spaced AOMs.

A secondary objective was to develop models to predict the risk and timing of AOM recurrences based on the natural history of disease in young children who do not get tympanostomy tubes. Prediction models were developed to assist clinicians in understanding and explaining to parents the benefit of tympanostomy tubes based on the child’s age and number of AOMs.

The children were all from a primary care pediatric practice in Rochester, N.Y., which comprised a typical mixed demographic of largely middle-class, health care–insured families that was broadly representative of the racial/ethnic diversity in the community. The sample included both wealthy families and those living below the poverty line. The diagnosis of AOM was made based on the American Academy of Pediatrics guidance in which a presumed middle ear effusion and a full or bulging tympanic membrane were required. Almost all episodes (> 85%) of clinically diagnosed AOM cases were confirmed by culture of middle ear fluid collected by tympanocentesis to ensure diagnostic accuracy.

286 children who had ear infections were studied. We found that 80% of ear infections occurred during a very narrow window of susceptibility – age 6-21 months. About 72% of children had a window of susceptibility to ear infections that lasted 5 months or less; 97% of children had a window of susceptibility that lasted 10 months or less.

From this result, we observed that about 90% of children have a window of time lasting about 10 months when they get repeated ear infections. By the time a child gets three ear infections in 6 months (a period of time recommended by the AAP and American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery when ear tubes might be considered) and then a referral for ear tubes is made and the child gets an appointment with the ear, nose, and throat doctor, and surgery is scheduled, the ear infections were going to stop anyway.

In other words, millions of children worldwide have been getting ear tubes and physicians and parents saw that the ear infections stopped. So they concluded the ear tubes stopped the infections. We found the infections were going to stop anyway even if the child did not receive ear tubes because their susceptibility to ear infections is over by the time the surgery is performed. The child outgrew ear infections.

An exception was children in daycare at an early age. Our study found that children in daycare who are around 6 months old and start getting ear infections at that age are likely destined to have three or more ear infections in the first year of life. If children are going to be in daycare, perhaps those who need them should receive ear tubes early. Analysis of other demographic and risk factor covariates – sex, race/ethnicity, breastfeeding, siblings in the home, smoking in the home, atopy, and family history of otitis media – were not significantly associated with the number of AOMs in the child population we studied.

We developed a prediction model for doctors, so they could input a child’s age, number of ear infections, and daycare attendance and receive back an estimate of the number of likely future ear infections for that child. With that knowledge, physicians and parents can make more informed decisions.

Our message to clinicians and parents is to reconsider the necessity and timing of ear tube surgery for children with recurrent ear infections because the future is not predicted by the past. Children having several ear infections in a short time does not predict that they will have a similar number of ear infections in the future.

The study was supported by the National Institutes of Health awarded to Rochester Regional Health. Dr. Pichichero was principal investigator for the award.

Dr. Pichichero is a specialist in pediatric infectious diseases, Center for Infectious Diseases and Immunology, and director of the Research Institute, at Rochester (N.Y.) General Hospital. He has no conflicts of interest to declare.

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

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