Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt
Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt
Monroe Carell Jr. Children's Hospital at Vanderbilt
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Ear Tubes


Ear tubes are also called Myringotomy tubes, Tympanostomy tubes, or pressure equalization tubes.

More than one million ear tubes procedures are performed in North America every year. It is one of the most common procedures performed in the country, with around seven percent of children in the U.S. receiving a set of tubes by age three. Thankfully ear tube procedures are usually quick and easy, with little down time. Below are some of the most common questions parents have about tubes.

1. What are ear tubes?
Ear tubes are small hollow cylinders that are inserted surgically into the eardrum by an Otolaryngologist (Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, or ENT surgeon). The purpose of ear tubes is to temporarily bypass the immature Eustachian tube, and let any ear infections drain out into the ear canal instead of staying trapped behind the eardrum. In children without tubes, ear infections are often treated with antibiotics by mouth or by injection. In children with tubes, the infection can drain out the tube and it can usually be treated with antibiotic eardrops alone. Tubes last somewhere between six months and two years, and the body naturally pushes the tubes out into the ear canal on it’s own in most kids.

2. Why is my doctor recommending ear tubes for my child?
Tubes are most commonly placed in kids who have repeated ear infections in a year, or several (3-5 a year) for multiple years in a row, or when the fluid doesn’t clear from the ears after the infection and is causing issues with hearing or speech. Sometimes they are placed for a particularly bad infection that isn’t responding to strong antibiotics, and also they can be placed for other types of abnormalities of the eardrum.

3. What is involved in ear tube surgery?
After fasting for a period of time, kids and their parents come to the hospital for the procedure. You will meet the nurses, surgeon, anesthesiologist, child life specialist, and other members of the operative team in the holding area, where there will be time to go over any questions you might have.

Your child will get changed into pajamas or a gown. If they are old enough, they will get to pick the flavor of the anesthetic gas. In the operating room, the gas is given and your child will fall asleep. Healthy kids under 12 generally won’t get an intravenous line (IV) placed at all.

The surgeon will use a microscope to clean the ear canal and then will create a small incision in the eardrum. Any fluid or infection will be suctioned out. The small tube will then be inserted. Often some antibiotic drops are administered into the ear. This is then repeated on the other ear. The process of anesthesia and surgery will take 15-20 minutes in most kids. The surgeon will then tell you what happened at surgery, and shortly thereafter you will be brought back to see your awakening child in the recovery room.

4. What is the recovery like after tube surgery?
The anesthetic can take several hours to wear off. Typically by that evening the kids are feeling much better. If fluid that has been impacting hearing has been suctioned out, your child may be suddenly hearing a LOT better, which means that regular noises like flushing a toilet, using a vacuum, or running the dishwasher can seem very loud and scary to them. You may notice that their speech sounds clearer to you, and some children’s balance improves too. They can bathe as usual that night.

Most children return to normal activities the next day, including day care or school. Your doctor may want you to use drops for one or more days after surgery to ensure the tubes don’t plug up with leftover mucous. Some parents notice drainage from the ears for a few days, and don’t be scared if there is a little blood in the drainage (the eardrum has lots of tiny blood vessels that can bleed a little right after the tube is placed).

5. What are the risks of tubes?
Tubes are very safe in general. The major risk of tubes is ear drainage, which is often treatable with eardrops. Other very rare risks include tubes that fall out too soon or stay in too long, persistent perforations in the ear drum that require repair, hearing loss, or skin cyst development in the ear. Note that repeated ear infections without tubes inserted can also cause some of these types of complications. You will need to have checkups with your doctor a couple of times a year to ensure the tubes are working well, and typically kids with tubes get an annual hearing test with an Audiologist at the ENT’s office. Some kids will need to have their tubes replaced after they fall out if they haven’t yet grown out of their ear infections.

6. Can you swim after having tubes?
Yes! There will be a tiny opening in the ear, but usually you don’t have to worry about protecting the ears with an earplug unless your child is dunking their head deeply (over a couple of feet below the surface) or the water is not thought to be clean.

Last Edited: December 8, 2015
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