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Ear Tube Surgery

Surgery Overview

Ear tubes are plastic and shaped like a hollow spool. Doctors suggest tubes for children who have repeat ear infections or when fluid stays behind the eardrum. A specialist (otolaryngologist) places the tubes through a small surgical opening made in the eardrum (myringotomy or tympanostomy). The child is unconscious under general anesthesia for this surgery.

Tubes can help with ear infections because they:

  • Allow air to enter the middle ear.
  • Allow fluid to flow out of the middle ear through the tube into the ear canal.
  • Clear the fluid from the middle ear and restore hearing.
  • Prevent future buildup of fluid in the middle ear while they are in place.
  • Decrease the feeling of pressure in the ears, which reduces pain.

How Its Done

Fluid buildup in the middle ear

Normal middle ear and fluid buildup in the middle ear
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slide 1 of 4, Fluid buildup in the middle ear,

A cold or some other upper respiratory infection can cause the eustachian tubes to swell, blocking the normal drainage from the middle ear. The fluid buildup can lower your or your child's ability to hear. And the warm, moist environment makes it easy for bacteria and viruses to grow, causing an ear infection.

Incision made in the eardrum

An incision made in the eardrum
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slide 2 of 4, Incision made in the eardrum,

A small cut (incision) is made in the eardrum to allow fluid to drain.

Fluid draining through the incision

Fluid draining through the incision
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slide 3 of 4, Fluid draining through the incision,

Fluid from the middle ear drains through the incision into the ear canal and is suctioned out by the doctor.

Ear tube placed

An ear tube in place and fluid draining into the ear canal
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slide 4 of 4, Ear tube placed,

The temporary tube is inserted into the eardrum incision to prevent future fluid buildup.

What To Expect

Tubes can be inserted in an outpatient surgery clinic. Children usually recover quickly and have little pain or other symptoms after surgery. Most children go home within 1 to 2 hours after the surgery. Your child will probably be able to go back to school or child care the next day.

Follow-up visits to the doctor are very important. The doctor checks to see if the tubes are working and if the child's hearing has improved.

Ask the doctor if your child needs to take extra care to keep water from getting in the ears when bathing or swimming. Your child may need to wear earplugs. Find out what your doctor recommends.

Tubes normally stay in the ears for 6 to 12 months. They often fall out on their own. If the tubes don't fall out on their own, your child may need surgery to remove them. After the tubes are out, watch your child for signs of ear infection or fluid behind the eardrum.

Why It Is Done

Placing tubes in the ears drains the fluid and ventilates the middle ear. Tubes may keep ear infections from recurring while the tubes are in place. They keep fluid from building up behind the eardrum. And they decrease the feeling of pressure in the ears, which reduces pain. Doctors consider surgery to insert tubes:

  • If a child has had fluid behind the eardrum in both ears for more than 3 months and has significant hearing loss in both ears.
  • If a child has repeat ear infections.

Learn more

How Well It Works

Ear tubes often restore hearing. While the tubes are in place, they often prevent buildup of pressure and fluid in the middle ear. And they can reduce pain.

Tubes may keep ear infections from recurring while the tubes are in place. But infections may return after the tubes are gone.

Risks

Minor complications occur in up to half of the children who have tubes inserted. Common problems include:

  • A thickening of the eardrum over time. These changes in the eardrum may affect hearing in a very small number of children.
  • Discharge of pus (otorrhea) from the ear. This is common. It can become an ongoing problem in some children.

Here are some other possible complications:

  • The tube may become blocked. This can allow ear fluid and infections to return.
  • The tube may slip out of place, possibly falling into the middle ear. This is rare.
  • Tissue may form behind the eardrum (cholesteatoma). This is also rare.

Related Information

Credits

Current as of: December 2, 2020

Author: Healthwise Staff
Medical Review:
Susan C. Kim MD - Pediatrics
Kathleen Romito MD - Family Medicine
John Pope MD - Pediatrics