Information for Parents About Ear Tubes

Ear Anatomy. 7activestudio / Getty Images

Myringotomy and insertion of synthetic ear tubes, also called myringotomy tubes or ventilation tubes, are used to treat and prevent chronic ear infections or fluid in the ear

Why Does My Child Need Ear Tubes?

Ear infections can occur when the Eustachian tube -- also called an auditory tube -- becomes filled with fluid instead of air, creating an environment for bacteria to grow and thrive.

Children are more likely to suffer from chronic ear infections because their Eustachian tube is at a more horizontal angle, shorter and narrower than that of an adult. A myringotomy is a small incision in the tympanic membrane (ear drum). This incision allows fluid and pus to drain from the middle ear and relieves pressure.

Ear tubes are tiny tubes made of plastic or metal which will hold the Eustachian tube open and allow fluid and bacteria to continue draining. They are placed after the myringotomy is made. Leaving these synthetic tubes in place facilitates ongoing ventilation of the middle ear and prevents future infections or problems caused by fluid in the ear. Without ear tubes, the myringotomy incisions would close up within a couple of days.

Indications For Ear Tubes

Insertion of ear tubes can help treat and prevent a variety of inner ear disorders. As previously mentioned, the most common reason for ear tube insertion is for treatment of acute/chronic ear infections, however, other reasons are:

  • improve severe symptoms of ear infections
  • hearing loss related to excess fluid in the middle ear
  • damage to ear structures related to flying or scuba diving (also called barotrauma)
  • speech and balance problems related to fluid in the ear

How Are Ear Tubes Placed?

Ear tubes are usually placed in a same day surgery setting.

This could be in a hospital or a surgical center. Before the surgery, someone will call you and give you instructions. Your child will not be allowed to eat or drink before surgery. This reduces the risk of aspiration of stomach contents into the lungs while under anesthesia.

The nurses and doctors will need a complete health history and a list of any medications that your child has been taking. Medications which may thin the blood, such as aspirin, should not be taken before surgery unless you are otherwise instructed by your physician. Even high doses of vitamin E and some other herbal supplements can thin your blood.

Make sure to inform your doctor and the surgical center of any allergies your child has and if they have ever had an abnormal reaction to anesthesia. If your child drinks from a bottle or special cup, make sure you bring it along. It's also a good idea to bring a "comfort item" such as a pacifier, blanket, or favorite stuffed animal.

The surgery itself is short, on average lasting half an hour or less. Your child will be sedated and should not have much, if any, pain. However, the combination of anesthetic drugs and the strange environment will probably make your child fussy.

You will need to remain at the hospital for a short 

while after the procedure is over. Your child's temperature, blood pressure, heart and respiratory rates, and oxygenation will all be monitored while they recover from sedation.

What to Expect After Surgery

Before you leave the hospital, you will receive a comprehensive set of instructions explaining how to care for your child after surgery. It is important to follow these instructions carefully. Generally speaking, most children can return to normal activities a day or two later.

Your doctor may wish you to keep water out of the ears for a few days after surgery.

While swimming and bathing without ear plugs used to be prohibited for the entire time the synthetic ear tubes were in place this is no longer recommended. Your child should be able to bathe and swim as they normally would a few days after the procedure.

Will the Tubes Need to be Removed?

No. As your child grows, their Eustachian tube will grow as well. As the diameter of the tube increases the synthetic tube will become loose and fall out on its own. This is normal. The incision will heal on its own shortly after.

Occasionally a new set of tubes will need to be placed, but often the growth of the Eustachian tube will be sufficient to prevent your child from suffering from chronic ear infections again. In some more rare cases the ear tubes can become stuck in the auditory tube. In this case the surgeon may decide to remove the old ear tubes and place a new set in the ears at the same time.

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View Article Sources
  • American Academy of Otolaryngology - Head and Neck Surgery. Ear Tubes. Accessed: January 28, 2009 from http://www.entnet.org/HealthInformation/Ear-Tubes.cfm
  • Medical College of Wisconsin. Pediatric Otolaryngology: Myringotomy (Ear Tubes). Accessed: December 2, 2008 from http://www.mcw.edu/pediatricoto/CommonHealthProblems/MyringotomyEarTubes.htm