New Device Helps Kids Clear Fluid from Ears

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Parents with children under 12 may be interested in a new gizmo called the Ear Popper that the FDA has approved for sale. The device applies gentle pressure through the nose to clear fluid that can build up in the inner ear, which can be difficult for children to do on their own.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Today's health news begins with a common occurrence this season: children with ear problems. Doctors have tried many things over the years to ease the pain of fluid building up in the ear, and now there's one more tool. NPR's Patricia Neighmond reports on one of the latest devices being marketed to parents.

PATRICIA NEIGHMOND reporting:

The Ear Popper looks something like an electric toothbrush, and to understand what it does, try this.

Dr. SHLOMO SILMAN (Co-inventor, Ear Popper): Close your nose and swallow. Did you feel something?

NEIGHMOND: Dr. Shlomo Silman co-invented the Ear Popper. He's a professor of hearing sciences and audiology at Brooklyn College. For most of us, when we do that little test, our ears naturally pop, but not so for everyone.

Dr. SILMAN: Ear Popper will pop the ears that cannot pop.

SHANNON GILLESPIE(ph) (Student): My name is Shannon Gillespie, and I'm nine. I'm in fourth grade.

NEIGHMOND: Having ears that don't naturally pop is a common problem for children. The eustachian tube which connects the nose to the inner ear isn't fully developed until about age 12, and because it doesn't open and close properly, the ear doesn't get ventilated. Fluid can build up and hearing, says Dr. Silman, can be impaired.

Dr. SILMAN: So that if you have a fluid in the middle ear, you're creating a cushion, so the sound--instead of saying `good morning,' you're going to hear (mumbles). You see, so what's happening here, talking about a child in the classroom who doesn't hear well the teacher, he becoming emotionally involved, he becoming hyperactive, frustrated.

NEIGHMOND: At four years old, Shannon Gillespie had ear tubes inserted to keep her ear fluid-free, but they only worked for two years, and the prospect of a second surgery, says Shannon's mother, Janet, was upsetting.

JANET (Shannon Gillespie's Mother): And we heard about this research at Brooklyn College, and that's how we got involved in it, and since she was part of this study, she hasn't had an ear infection or any problems with her hearing since.

NEIGHMOND: Ninety-four children took part in Dr. Silman's study, which was funded by the National Institutes of Health. In all, after using the Ear Popper for three months, 85 percent of the children reported their hearing restored. Here, Shannon demonstrates how the Ear Popper works.

GILLESPIE: You put some water in your mouth and then you put the Ear Popper up against your nose, and then you put your finger over the--your other nostril, and then you push the button, and then you swallow at the same time, and your ear pops.

NEIGHMOND: The Ear Popper blows air up into Shannon's nostril. That forces the eustachian tube to open and ventilate the middle ear. It doesn't hurt, says Shannon, just tickles a little. The device costs about a hundred and fifty dollars, and it's not clear yet whether insurance will cover it. Even so, Dr. Silman points out that the cost of surgery to insert ear tubes is about $2,000. But Dr. Richard Rosenfeld is skeptical. Rosenfeld's a pediatric ear, nose and throat specialist at Long Island College Hospital. He helped write the national guidelines on how to treat fluid buildup in the ear. He says the Ear Popper builds on an idea that's been around for years.

Dr. RICHARD ROSENFELD (Long Island College Hospital): It was suggested in the late 1800s by a Hungarian otologist called Politzer, but unfortunately, it involved sticking some long thin catheters up your nose, which was not very comfortable, and then over the years, particularly in the past 20 years, people have come up with some novel ways to do this in a more acceptable way using anesthesia masks and other devices to blow the air up and, particularly for children, a little plastic cannula that goes in your nostril and has a balloon on it, so the kids actually blow the balloon up with their nose, and these are just all variations on a theme for the past hundred twenty-five years.

NEIGHMOND: The new Ear Popper, says Rosenfeld, is simply the latest variation. The long-term effectiveness of all these devices has never been proved. Rosenfeld worries that children may not get the care that has been proved effective over the long term in large clinical trials: ear tubes. Delaying insertion of ear tubes, he says, could add several months of time that a child suffers with hearing impairment, along with all of its emotional and academic consequences. Patricia Neighmond, NPR News.

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