Ear Tube Placement in Adults

Synthetic ear tubes are also sometimes called ventilation tubes, ear grommets, or tympanostomy tubes. They are placed inside of the auditory tube in order to hold it open and to allow proper ventilation and drainage of the middle ear.

When Do Adults Need Ear Tubes?
Verywell / JR Bee

Why Adults Need Ear Tubes

The surgical placement of ear tubes is more common in children than adults because children have a naturally more narrow auditory tube which tends to be at a more horizontal angle than adults. This difference in anatomy makes it more difficult for a child's middle ear to get proper airflow and for fluid to drain from their ears. However, when the surgical placement of ear tubes becomes necessary in an adult, it is often to treat the same conditions which require their placement in children. These conditions can include:

It should be noted that more than one of these conditions can be present at the same time. For example, auditory tube dysfunction can often lead to ear infections, persistent fluid in the ears, or retracted eardrums. Abnormalities in an adult's ear anatomy, often present from birth, can contribute to the development of these conditions as well.

How Are Ear Tubes Placed?

The surgical placement of ear tubes is a relatively simple procedure that involves making a small hole in the eardrum with a scalpel or laser (technically called a myringotomy) and then inserting a synthetic tube. The procedure is relatively simple and short, lasting only about 15 minutes.

Surgical Placement in Adults vs. Children

As previously mentioned, the procedure to place synthetic ear tubes is relatively simple and short, however, it does require the patient to remain still. For this reason, small children are usually put under a general anesthetic. This may not be necessary for an adult who is more capable of remaining still during the procedure and sometimes ear tubes can be placed in adults right in a physician's office rather than a surgical setting.

Several types of synthetic ear tubes exist and they vary in the materials they are made of as well as the shape (design) of the tubes. In small children, the tubes are often designed to fall out when the child has a growth spurt and their auditory tube naturally increases in diameter. This increase in diameter of the auditory tube often resolves ear problems in children. In adults, the tubes are often shaped like a "T" and are designed to stay in place for a longer period of time since growth of the auditory tube is not anticipated.

Post Surgery Care

The placement of ventilation tubes seldom causes a lot of pain and any discomfort can usually be treated with the over-the-counter pain medication acetaminophen. Sometimes your doctor may want you to use some antibiotic ear drops in the affected ear(s) following surgery. If this is the case, be sure to follow the directions precisely to avoid the development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria.

If you receive an anesthetic during the procedure you may feel tired, groggy, dizzy, or have some nausea following the procedure. You will be monitored before you leave the hospital or surgical center and given instructions about how to care for yourself at home prior to being discharged. Listen to the instructions carefully and call your doctor with any questions or concerns you have after leaving.

It is usually advised that you call the doctor if you have a fever, excessive bleeding, or drainage from your ear that is an abnormal color or has a foul odor.

Old guidelines used to recommend keeping water out of your ears as long as the tubes were in place, but new guidelines do not recommend this so it should be safe to wash your hair or to swim as soon as your surgeon allows (probably a few days after surgery). Most people can return to school or work the day after having tubes placed, but recovery times vary between individuals.

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Article Sources
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  1. Cleveland Clinic. Ear Tubes. Updated June 19, 2018.

  2. Cleveland Clinic. Ear Tubes: Procedure Details. Updated June 19, 2018.

  3. American Academy of Otolaryngology–Head and Neck Surgery Foundation. Ear Tubes.