What are Ear Tubes? Why do we need them?

If your child has persistent ear infections or difficulty hearing at home, your pediatrician may suggest seeing an otolaryngologist (ENT) for ear tube placement. Ear tubes, or tympanostomy tubes, are tiny cylinders that are temporarily inserted into the eardrum. The tubes measure about 2mm in length and stay in the eardrum for approximately 9 to 15 months. Eventually the tubes fall out (usually on their own) and the small hole in the eardrum quickly heals.

Ear tubes are typically used to treat chronic and/or recurrent middle ear infections (otitis media). Under rare circumstances, tubes may be recommended for chronic eustachian tube dysfunction. During a middle ear infection, fluid builds up behind the eardrum and gets stuck in the middle ear. Patients often experience ear blockage, hearing loss, ear pressure, and/or a popping noise. When ear tubes are placed, the middle ear space becomes aerated and the fluid drains out. Benefits of ear tubes include – improved hearing, less ear infections, and less treatment with oral antibiotics.

Ear tubes can be placed in both children and adults, but are more common in children due to underdeveloped eustachian tubes. The eustachian tubes are responsible for equalizing pressure and allowing middle ear fluid to drain. In children, immature eustachian tubes result in decreased fluid clearance and accumulation in the middle ear space.

Ear tube placement is a quick, painless, and safe procedure which can be performed by an otolaryngologist (ENT). The procedure can be performed in-office with local anesthesia or in a hospital setting with general anesthesia. Due to age and level of cooperation, children typically have ear tubes placed under general anesthesia. Brief exposure to general anesthesia in an otherwise healthy child does not have any long-term consequences and allows the procedure to be done safely and painlessly. During the procedure, the surgeon makes a tiny hole in the eardrum and removes fluid from the ear using suction. A small tympanostomy tube is then inserted into the hole. In total, the procedure takes ~10-15 minutes. After the tubes have been placed, it is important to keep water out of the ear. A long-held theory suggests that water exposure to the middle ear may cause infection. Therefore, patients with ear tubes should use ear plugs when showering or swimming.

If you or family members have concerns regarding recurrent ear infections or ear tubes, please do not hesitate to contact Colden and Seymour Ear, Nose, Throat, and Allergy to set up an appointment. Opinions expressed here are those of Daryl Colden, MD, FACS, and Christopher Jayne, BA. These opinions are not a substitute for a medical evaluation performed by a medical provider.