Acute otitis media is essentially an infection of the middle ear space. These painful infections occur frequently in children, and less commonly in adults. When acute otitis media becomes a recurring problem, the surgical placement of ear tubes can interrupt this pattern of recurring infections.
Frequently, a persistent and non-infected collection of fluid develops behind the eardrum, which remains despite medical treatment or continued observation. These non-infected fluid collections are called “chronic otitis media with effusion”. The fluid can be thick and mucus-like, (mucoid otitis media) or it may be watery and translucent (serous otitis media).
Sometimes the fluid is associated with a feeling of pressure in the ear that can lead to discomfort, behavioral changes, or disturbed sleep. Chronic fluid collections may not result in obvious symptoms, but do generally cause hearing loss, which may be exhibited by inattention, delayed speech development, or poor school performance. In more extreme cases, persistent effusions can require additional surgery to correct the ear damage.
Insertion of ear tubes is a common procedure, performed in an outpatient setting under brief general anesthesia. The procedure is known by a wide variety of names, such as BMT’s (bilateral myringotomy with tubes) or PET’s (pressure equalization tube insertion). The tiny, temporary tubes are inserted through a small incision in the ear drum to help equalize pressure and eliminate infection and fluid in the middle ear space. Generally, the tubes stay in place for 6-12 months, before they fall out on their own.