Ear Infections With Ear Tubes

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Ear tubes, which are also called ventilation tubes or tympanostomy tubes, are tiny synthetic tubes that are surgically placed in the tympanic membrane (eardrum). These tubes are used to treat chronic middle ear infections or fluid in the ear. They help free the ear of fluid and lessen the chances of getting ear infections. However, even with ear tubes in place, infections still may occur.

This article will discuss how ear infections can be treated when ear tubes are in place.

doctor looking in child's ear

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Symptoms

Symptoms of an ear infection with tubes in your ear are similar to symptoms of an ear infection without tubes, and may include the following:

  • Ear pain: Very young children who are unable to communicate their symptoms may pull at their ear or tilt their head to the side.
  • Ear drainage: This may be bloody or a yellowish color or even have a foul smell. Ear drainage is more common when ear tubes are in place.
  • Fullness or pressure in the ear: This is less likely in people who get an infection with tubes already in place, if the tube is still allowing for proper drainage.
  • Fever

When to Call a Doctor

While not necessarily an emergency, any of the symptoms listed above warrant a call to your otolaryngologist (also called an ear, nose, and throat doctor), so you can be examined for an ear infection.

Diagnosis

If you experience symptoms, your otolaryngologist or other physician might suspect an ear infection and ask you to come in for an examination.

An ear infection can be diagnosed by looking into the ear using an otoscope. An otoscope is a special tool with a light on the end that allows physicians to visualize the canal and eardrum.

Your physician will check for signs of an infection, including redness, and can also make sure that the tubes are still in their proper place, since it is possible for tubes to fall out or to move.

Treatment

At-Home Remedies

Over-the-counter (OTC) pain relief medications, such as Tylenol (acetaminophen) or Advil or Motrin (ibuprofen), can be used to lessen ear infection pain.

Other ways to help relieve ear infection pain at home include:

  • Resting
  • Drinking plenty of water
  • Putting a heating pad or an ice pack on the ear
  • Keeping your upper body elevated so that gravity can aid in the expulsion of any drainage

If you get an ear infection when you have tubes in your ears, avoid putting any product inside your ear, such as ear drops, without discussing it with your physician or otolaryngologist first. Certain ear drops could potentially damage the middle ear, causing problems such as hearing loss. You should never put anything inside of your ear or use any ear drops that are not approved by your otolaryngologist.

Oral Antibiotics

Antibiotics are sometimes used to treat ear infections. These are used in more severe or long-lasting cases, when other treatments aren't working.

Typically, a person's immune system can fight off the infection on its own without the need for antibiotics.

Certain Ear Drops

Only specific ear drops can be used for individuals who get ear infections with tubes in their ears. These should be prescribed by your doctor to avoid accidentally damaging delicate inner ear structures.

Ear drops may have an antibiotic or an anti-inflammatory medication in them or be a combination of the two types of drugs.

Ciprodex (ciproflaxacin and dexamethasone) is a combination ear drop that is often prescribed for the treatment of ear infections with tubes in the ears. It will not damage the structures of the middle ear.

Follow Your Physician's Instructions

Follow the directions provided by your physician exactly, including the procedure, frequency, number of drops given, and the length of use. Note that ear drops can cause side effects, such as irritation or even an allergic reaction.

Follow-Up Care

Any follow-up care required after developing an ear infection with tubes depends largely on your individual circumstances. If you feel better after starting an antibiotic and symptoms do not return, you may not require a follow-up. If you do not feel better within a few days of starting treatment, you should notify your physician.

If your ear infections recur, or happen frequently, you may require more follow-up care. This can include diagnostic testing to determine what is causing your frequent ear infections or to determine if replacement of your ventilation tubes is needed.

Possible Complications

Most ear infections with tubes are easily treated. However, in some cases, complications can occur, including:

  • Repeated infections
  • Infections in other parts of the head
  • Hearing loss
  • Speech or language issues
  • Side effects or allergic reaction to the medication used to treat the infection

If the ear infection spreads, this may lead to conditions such as mastoiditis (infection of the bones surrounding the ear), labyrinthitis (infection of the inner ear), or meningitis.

A Word From Verywell

It can be frustrating to develop an ear infection after having tubes inserted, especially if the tubes were placed to prevent or mitigate ear infections in the first place. However, even though it is still possible to get an ear infection with tubes, likelihood and frequency are greatly reduced with tubes in place. With prompt treatment, most infections clear up without complications.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Can you still get an infection if you have ear tubes?

    Yes. While it is less likely to get frequent ear infections after having ventilation tubes placed, it is still possible to develop ear infections with tubes.

  • Are ear infections treated differently when you have ear tubes?

    For the most part, ear infections with tubes are treated the same as ear infections without them. However, a specific type of ear drop may be needed to treat someone who develops an ear infection with tubes.

  • Does an ear infection mean the tubes aren’t working?

    The development of an ear infection doesn't necessarily mean the tubes aren't working. While ear infections may be a symptom of a clogged ventilation tube, or one that has slipped or fallen out of the auditory tube, it is also possible to develop an ear infection even if your ventilation tubes are in their proper place and fully functioning.

  • Will ear tubes need to be replaced due to an infection?

    Simply developing an ear infection with tubes in place is not an indication that the tubes need to be replaced. Tubes may need to be replaced if they have moved, fallen out, or are severely clogged and cannot be cleared.

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Article Sources
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  2. University of Rochester. Middle ear infection (otitis media) in adults.

  3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Ear infections. Updated July 1, 2021.

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