Why You Might Need Ear Tubes to Treat Chronic Problems

By the age of five years, nearly every child has experienced at least one episode of a middle ear infection. Most ear infections either resolve on their own (in the case of viral infections) or are effectively treated with antibiotics (in the case of bacterial infections). But sometimes, ear infections and/or fluid in the middle ear may become a chronic problem, leading to other issues such as hearing loss, behavior, and speech problems. In these cases, insertion of an ear tube by an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat surgeon) may be considered.

Examining ear with otoscope
KatarzynaBialasiewicz / Getty Images

What Are Ear Tubes?

Ear tubes are tiny cylinders placed through the eardrum (tympanic membrane) to allow air into the middle ear. They also may be called tympanostomy tubes, myringotomy tubes, ventilation tubes, or pressure equalization tubes.

These tubes can be made of plastic, metal, or Teflon and may have a coating intended to reduce possible infection. There are two basic types of ear tubes: short term and long term. Short-term tubes are smaller and typically stay in place for six months to a year before falling out on their own. Long-term tubes are larger and have flanges that secure them in place for a longer period of time. Long-term tubes may fall out on their own, but removal by an otolaryngologist is often necessary.


Ear tubes are often recommended when a person experiences repeated middle ear infection (acute otitis media) or has hearing loss caused by the persistent presence of middle ear fluid (otitis media with effusion). These conditions most commonly occur in children, but can also happen in teens and adults and can lead to speech and balance problems, hearing loss, or changes in the structure of the eardrum.

Other, less common conditions that may warrant placing ear tubes are a malformation of the eardrum or Eustachian tube, Down syndrome, cleft palate, or barotrauma (injury to the middle ear caused by reducing air pressure), usually seen with altitude changes such as flying and scuba diving.

Each year, more than half a million ear tube surgeries are performed on children, making it the most common childhood surgery performed with anesthesia. The average age of ear tube insertion is one to three years old. Inserting ear tubes may:

  • reduce the risk of future ear infection
  • restore hearing loss caused by middle ear fluid
  • improve speech problems and balance problems
  • improve behavior and sleep problems caused by chronic ear infections

How Surgery Works

Ear tubes are inserted through an outpatient surgical procedure called a myringotomy. A myringotomy refers to an incision (a hole) in the eardrum or tympanic membrane. This is most often done under a surgical microscope with a small scalpel (tiny knife), but it can also be accomplished with a laser. If an ear tube is not inserted, the hole would heal and close within a few days. To prevent this, an ear tube is placed in the hole to keep it open and allow air to reach the middle ear space (ventilation).

A light general anesthetic is administered to young children. Some older children and adults may be able to tolerate the procedure with only topical or local, rather than general, anesthesia. A myringotomy is performed, and the fluid behind the eardrum (in the middle ear space) is suctioned out. The ear tube is then placed in the hole. Ear drops may be administered after the ear tube is placed and may be necessary for a few days. The procedure usually lasts less than 15 minutes, and patients awaken quickly.

Sometimes the otolaryngologist will recommend removal of the adenoid tissue (lymph tissue in the upper airway behind the nose) when ear tubes are placed. This is often considered when a repeat tube insertion is necessary. Current research indicates that removing adenoid tissue concurrent with placement of ear tubes can reduce the risk of recurrent ear infection and the need for repeat surgery.

After Surgery

After surgery, the patient is monitored in the recovery room and will usually go home within an hour if no complications are present. Patients usually experience little or no postoperative pain, but grogginess, irritability, and/or nausea from the anesthesia can occur temporarily.

Hearing loss caused by middle ear fluid is immediately resolved by surgery. Sometimes children can hear so much better that they complain that normal sounds seem too loud.

The otolaryngologist will provide specific postoperative instructions for each patient, including when to seek immediate attention and follow-up appointments. He or she may also prescribe antibiotic ear drops for a few days.

To avoid bacteria possibly entering the middle ear through the ventilation tube, physicians may recommend keeping ears dry by using earplugs or other water-tight devices during bathing, swimming, and water activities. However, recent research suggests that protecting the ear may not be necessary, except when diving or engaging in water activities in unclean water such as lakes and rivers. Parents should consult with their child's treating physician about ear protection after surgery.

Consultation with an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat surgeon) may be warranted if you or your child has experienced repeated or severe ear infections, ear infections that are not resolved with antibiotics, hearing loss due to fluid in the middle ear, barotrauma, or have an anatomic abnormality that inhibits drainage of the middle ear.

Possible Complications

Myringotomy with insertion of ear tubes is an extremely common and safe procedure with minimal complications. When complications do occur, they may include the following.

  • Perforation: This can happen when a tube comes out or a long-term tube is removed and the hole in the tympanic membrane (eardrum) does not close. The hole can be patched through a minor surgical procedure called a tympanoplasty or myringoplasty.
  • Scarring: Any irritation of the eardrum (recurrent ear infections), including repeated insertion of ear tubes, can cause scarring called ​tympanosclerosis or myringosclerosis. In most cases, this causes no problems with hearing.
  • Infection: Ear infections can still occur in the middle ear or around the ear tube. However, these infections are usually less frequent, result in less hearing loss, and are easier to treat—often only with ear drops. Sometimes an oral antibiotic is still needed.
  • Ear tubes come out too early or stay in too long: If an ear tube expels from the eardrum too soon, fluid may return and repeat surgery may be needed. Ear tubes that remain too long may result in perforation or require removal by the otolaryngologist.
8 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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  6. Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Ear tubes.

  7. Pudukulangara S, Megalamani SB, Gadag RP. A study to compare the outcomes of laser myringotomy and conventional incision myringotomy. Int J Otorhinolaryngol Head Neck Surg. 2020;6(11):2081. doi:10.18203/issn.2454-5929.ijohns20204462

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By Melissa Karp, AuD
Melissa Karp, AuD, is a board-certified audiologist and the owner of a private audiology clinic in Charlotte, North Carolina.