What are ear tubes?
Ear tubes are small, hollow cylinders made of plastic or metal that are inserted into the tympanic membrane (eardrum) during a surgery called a myringotomy.
Why are ear tubes used?
Ear tubes are often used in children who have had several middle ear infections (acute otitis media), or infections that have lasted longer than three months despite treatment. They are also used for people who are having trouble hearing because of a buildup of fluid (effusion) in the middle ear. If these conditions are not treated, they can lead to larger problems, such as difficulties with speech or permanent hearing loss.
In addition to draining fluid from the ear, ear tubes let air in to prevent buildup of fluid in the middle ear.
Ear tube surgery is one of the most common surgeries in children, but it is not recommended as the first treatment for ear infection.
How are ear tubes placed in the ear?
Ear tube surgery (myringotomy) is usually performed while the patient is under general anesthesia (put to sleep). It can also be done in adults with a local anesthetic (the patient remains awake).
During the surgery:
- The surgeon makes a small incision (cut) in the eardrum. The incision can be made with a scalpel or with a laser.
- The fluid that is trapped in the middle ear is drained or suctioned out.
- The doctor then inserts the tube into the incision in the eardrum to allow fluid to drain out of the ear.
In some cases, the surgeon may also remove the adenoids (glands that are located above the roof of the mouth and behind the nose). Adenoids are part of the immune system and help protect the body from viruses and bacteria. Removing the adenoids may prevent the need for future ear tube surgeries.
Ear tube surgery is performed in the hospital or in the doctor’s office. It usually takes less than 15 minutes, and the patient goes home the same day (outpatient surgery).
What happens after ear tube surgery?
The patient will spend some time in the recovery room after ear tube surgery. He or she may have some side effects from the surgery and anesthesia, including grogginess and nausea.
The patient will see the doctor again after the surgery to make sure the tube remains in the eardrum and is working correctly. The surgeon may prescribe antibiotic ear drops to prevent infection in the ear. In addition, the surgeon may recommend that the child wear ear plugs during certain activities, such as swimming and showering.
The eardrum usually closes around the ear tube to keep it in place and prevent it from falling out early. The ear tubes will usually fall out in nine to 18 months. If the tubes do not fall out within two years, the surgeon may have to remove them.
Risks / Benefits
What are the complications of ear tube surgery?
As with any type of surgery, ear tube surgery may have certain complications. These include the following:
- The hole in the eardrum doesn’t close after the tube comes out. If this happens, the hole has to be repaired with another surgery.
- Scarring of the eardrums, caused by multiple ear infections or by the ear tube surgery itself.
- Repeated ear infections, even after ear tube surgery.
- The ear tubes either fall out early, or don’t come out at all.
- A condition called otorrhea (a continuous drainage of fluid from the ear).
- The eardrum may shrink or harden after several ear tube surgeries.