Whether you call them pressure equalization tubes, myringotomy tubes, or tympanostomy tubes, they’re one of the most commonly-implanted medical devices. Millions of children have ear tubes in place to eliminate recurring ear infections and correct hearing problems. Ear tubes are even known to amend balance issues and improve performance in school, according to the American Academy of Otolaryngology.
Are Earplugs Necessary for Children with Ear Tubes?
If your child just had ear tubes put in and your doctor told you to keep their ear canals dry, you’re probably wondering how on earth that’s possible. And, with summer approaching, you may be asking yourself:
“Can my child go swimming with ear tubes in?”
The answer is a tricky one due to conflicting recommendations. The Mayo Clinic suggests speaking directly with your child’s physician or ENT doctor about whether or not they can safely go swimming with ear tubes in. But they also indicate that, in most cases, your child doesn’t need any ear protection at all because the opening of the tube is so tiny that water is not likely to find its way in.
Dr. Richard Rosenfeld, chairman of otolaryngology at SUNY Downstate Medical Center, goes so far as to say that no supplementary ear protection is ever required to swim with tympanostomy tubes. In fact, clinical guidelines published in 2013 by the American Academy of Otolaryngology (Head & Neck Surgery) affirm this recommendation, specifically rejecting the use of “routine, prophylactic water precautions.”
However, research shows that myringotomy patients who don’t wear ear protection while swimming may be more likely to experience an ear infection as a result. A 2005 study conducted by the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh sought to determine once and for all whether ear plugs are necessary for swimming with ear tubes. Doctors compared outcomes of children who wore ear plugs during swimming and bathing and children who did not wear any ear protection. Researchers concluded that there was a small, but statistically-significant increase in the incidence of ear infection (otorrhea) among the unprotected children.
When to Use Ear Protection
The prevailing recommendation is this: if your child will be swimming in clean, fresh water (such as a well-maintained private pool with properly balanced chemicals), there is little need for ear protection, according to the Osborne Head and Neck Institute. But, if your child plans to dive or jump in, some clinicians suggest preventative measures because of the pressure applied to the ear tube. And, under certain circumstances, it’s even more important to prevent water from entering the ears. While washing your child’s hair, for example, a pair of earplugs or a neoprene earband is recommended because soapy water is more viscous and travels into the tube more easily. Of course, if your child will be swimming in public pools, pools that may not be properly maintained to prevent the growth of micro-organisms, or in untreated water such as lakes, rivers, or oceans, keeping water out of their ears is paramount to remaining infection-free.
Methods of Protecting From Ear Infection
Although the risk of infection from clean water sources is relatively low, research shows that ear plugs further reduce this risk. In circumstances where bacterial growth is higher, such as in kiddie pools or poorly-maintained in-ground pools, ear protection curtails the incidence of otorrhea substantially enough to promote the use of ear plugs. If the choice is between a low-cost investment or a painful infection and a doctor’s visit, the latter is always the better choice.
If you’d rather be on the safe side, there are plenty of precautionary measures that you can take to keep water out of your child’s ears. An Aqua Earband creates a seal over the entire ear opening using simple tension. Designed by Ear, Nose and Throat doctors, neoprene ear bands are the ideal solution and can be worn with or without secondary protection from earplugs. Alternatively, a pair of kid’s ear plugs block the ear canal to prevent water from passing through the ear tube. Moldable ear plugs are easy enough for kids to use on their own, but become soiled after about 5 uses. Pre-shaped ear plug models are endlessly reusable (with proper care), but may require some time to find the perfect size.
Although otolaryngology experts don’t always advocate the use of ear plugs for swimming with ear tubes, research shows that wearing protection reduces the chance of ear infection in some patients. Your child’s own physician might prescribe ear plugs post-myringotomy for your child’s comfort and peace of mind. Ultimately, it’s your responsibility to advocate for your child’s health and speaking with their doctor is the first step.
This article is for general information purposes only and should not be construed as medical advice. Always address medical questions to your child’s ENT or family physician before making any health-related decisions.