Ventilation Tubes for the Ears

Doctor checking a child's ear during a checkup


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Ventilation tubes are used to treat fluid in the ear. When the space in the middle ear fills up with fluid, due to a clogged or collapsed auditory tube, it is sometimes necessary to create a way for the fluid to escape. By surgically placing a tiny synthetic tube through the eardrum, the fluid that is not able to naturally drain down the auditory tube can drain into the ear canal. This tube is sometimes referred to as a ventilation tube. Ventilation tubes are also sometimes used to treat chronic middle ear infections.

Known also as ear tubesear grommets, myringotomy tubes, tympanostomy tube, or pressure equalization (PE) tubes.

Most Common Reason for Ventilation Tubes

Fluid in the ear is a common condition in children, but it can also occur in adults. Children have a more horizontal ear tube which is smaller and can more easily become clogged, trapping fluid and other debris inside the ear. Fluid in the ear sometimes results in symptoms such as:

  • Decreased hearing
  • Ear pain
  • Infections
  • Loss of balance
  • Developmental delays

Fluid in the ear can often be asymptomatic and can be a difficult condition to diagnose. Many doctors used to try to treat fluid in the ear using decongestant medications such as pseudoephedrine, but the American Academy of Pediatrics no longer recommends this treatment as studies have shown that these medications are ineffective. The treatment of choice for fluid in the ear is a myringotomy, with the insertion of ventilation tubes.

How Are Ventilation Tubes Inserted?

A myringotomy is the creation of a tiny hole or incision in the eardrum; once this hole is created, the ventilation tube is then inserted into the hole. If a tube is not inserted after a myringotomy, the eardrum will heal after a few days. Ventilation tubes usually remain in place for about a year, and then fall out on their own. This is typically a painless process, and unless the ear fills up with fluid again—or there are other complications—most people don't even realize when the tube falls out. In some cases, the ventilation tube may become stuck in a sideways position inside of the auditory tube. In these cases, the ventilation tubes must be surgically removed by a simple procedure, which is very similar to having the tubes inserted.

A myringotomy with the insertion of ventilation tubes is probably one of the most common procedures performed in the United States, and it is also very simple. While all surgery carries risks—especially when anesthesia medications are used—this surgical procedure generally lasts less than 30 minutes and is very easy to recover from. Most patients do not require pain medications, although over-the-counter acetaminophen can be used if needed. The procedure is typically performed in a same-day surgery setting, and the patient can be sent home within a few hours after the procedure.

After Insertion

There are a few things that you should be cautious of after having your ventilation tubes inserted. While it used to be considered necessary to keep water out of the ear, this is no longer considered necessary. However, if having your ears submerged makes you feel uncomfortable, you can get earplugs to protect the fluid from entering the middle ear. You can buy earplugs over-the-counter at your local grocery or drug store; they are usually inexpensive and effective. However, if you plan to do a lot of swimming, you may wish to buy custom earplugs from your doctor or audiologist. If you or your child accidentally get water in your ears, you don't need to notify your doctor unless you develop symptoms of a middle ear infection or swimmer's ear.

If you start having similar symptoms before you had ventilation tubes inserted, you should see your doctor. They can look into your ear canal and see if the tubes have either fallen out, tilted into a position that makes draining difficult, or you have something like ear wax obstructing the tube. You should never insert medication into your ear without your doctors' consent, as some medications can damage the middle ear.

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  3. Cleveland Clinic. Ear care tips. Updated October 24, 2012.