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Ear tubes are tiny, hollow cylinders, usually made of plastic or metal, that are surgically inserted into the eardrum. An ear tube creates an airway that ventilates the middle ear and prevents the accumulation of fluids behind the eardrum. Ear tubes can also be called tympanostomy tubes, ventilation tubes, myringotomy tubes or pressure equalization tubes.
Ear tubes are often recommended for children who have persistent fluid buildup behind the eardrum, especially if the condition causes hearing loss and affects speech development. Your child's doctor may also recommend ear tubes if your child gets frequent ear infections.
Most ear tubes fall out within six to nine months, and the holes heal shut on their own. Some tubes need to be removed, and some holes may need to be closed surgically.
An ear tube is used most often to provide long-term drainage and ventilation to middle ears that have had persistent fluid buildup, chronic middle ear infections or frequent infections.
Ventilation of the middle ear is normally accomplished by the eustachian tubes — narrow tubes that run from each middle ear to high in the back of the throat. The throat end of each tube opens and closes to:
Swelling, inflammation and mucus in the eustachian tubes from an upper respiratory infection or allergy can block the tubes, causing the accumulation of fluids in the middle ear. This problem is more common in children, in part because their eustachian tubes are narrower and more horizontal — factors that make them more difficult to drain and more likely to get clogged.
Ear tubes provide an alternative airway to keep the air in the middle ear refreshed, allow for drainage and equalize the pressure inside the ear with air pressure outside the body. The tubes are most often used in children with one of the following conditions:
Ear tube placement is a relatively safe procedure with a low risk of serious complications. Possible risks include:
Surgery for ear tube placement usually requires general anesthesia, which carries some risks as well. Although the risks of anesthesia are very low in otherwise healthy children, possible problems include:
You'll receive instructions from the hospital on how to prepare your child for surgery to place ear tubes.
Information to provide may include:
Questions to ask your doctor or the hospital staff:
Tips for helping your child prepare include the following:
A surgeon specializing in ear, nose and throat disorders performs the surgery for placing ear tubes.
The surgeon usually performs the procedure during general anesthesia, so your child isn't aware of anything during the procedure.
The surgical team places several monitors on your child's body to help make sure that his or her heart rate, blood pressure and blood oxygen remain at safe levels throughout the procedure. These monitors include a blood pressure cuff on your child's arm and heart-monitor leads attached to your child's chest.
The procedure usually takes about 15 minutes. The surgeon:
After surgery, your child is moved to a recovery room where the health care team watches for complications from the surgery and anesthesia. If there aren't any complications, your child will be able to go home within a few hours.
Your child will likely be sleepy and irritable for the rest of the day and possibly nauseated from the anesthetic. In most cases, children resume regular activities within 24 hours of the surgery.
Hearing loss caused by fluid in the middle ear is immediately resolved by surgery.
Your child's doctor will advise you about follow-up care after ear tube placement.
If your child has no complications:
Reasons to see your child's ear, nose and throat specialist outside of regularly scheduled follow-up appointments include:
Ear tubes help restore ventilation and drainage of the ear. Ear tube placement often results in:
Even with ear tubes, your child may still get an occasional ear infection.
Usually, ear tubes stay in the eardrum for six to nine months and then fall out on their own. Sometimes, a tube doesn't fall out and needs to be surgically removed. In some cases, the ear tube falls out too soon, and another needs to be put in.
Last Updated May 10, 2019