ear tubes
Ear Tubes

Why does my child need ear tubes?

fingers holding ear tube

Ear tubes are recommended for children who either get lots of ear infections or have fluid behind the eardrum that doesn’t go away. Both of these problems are most common between the ages of 6 months and 3 years, although older children sometimes have these problems too.

How do ear tubes work?

During an ear infection, fluid builds up behind the eardrum in a place called the middle ear space. Normally, when the ear infection has run its course the fluid drains out of the middle ear into the back of the nose through the body’s natural drainage tube called the Eustachian tube (yoo-STAY-shun).

middle ear schema

Sometimes this fluid doesn’t go away because the Eustachian tube remains swollen and can’t open. Fluid trapped behind the eardrum causes a hearing loss because it prevents the eardrum from vibrating normally.

water cooler

Ear tubes are small plastic or metal tubes that are surgically inserted into the eardrum (also called the tympanic membrane).

Ear tubes also allow air to get into the middle ear. Just like the big bubbles in the water tank on top of a water cooler, air needs to get into the middle ear in order for the fluid to drain out. Over time this “ventilation” helps to decrease swelling in the Eustachian tube and allows it to function normally again. This is why ear tubes are sometimes called ventilation tubes or pressure equalization tubes (PE tubes for short).

ear tube function

How are ear tubes put in?

Ear tubes are put in by an ears, nose, and throat surgeon. Using a microscope, a small incision is made in the eardrum. The tube is then placed through this hole.

Ear tube insertion

Since the tubes are very small, this is a delicate operation. Because children cannot hold still for this procedure it is performed in the operating room under general anesthesia. In this day and age, general anesthesia is very safe and your child will be carefully monitored during the procedure. You will have a chance to talk with the anesthesiologist on the day of surgery to discuss any questions you may have about the anesthesia.

Are there any instructions I need to follow before surgery?

Your child must have a physical examination by his or her pediatrician or family doctor within 7 days before surgery to make sure he or she is in good health. The doctor you see needs to complete the History and Physical form provided by our office. You must bring the completed form with you the day of surgery.

For your child’s safety, it is very important that he or she have an empty stomach when anesthesia is given. Please follow our preoperative Eating and Drinking Guidelines. If you do not follow these guidelines, your child's surgery will be cancelled.

What can I expect after surgery?

The procedure itself usually takes no more than 10 or 15 minutes. Your child will wake up in the recovery room after surgery. This may take 30 to 45 minutes. When your child is awake, he or she will be taken to the discharge area to complete the recovery. You can be with your child once he or she has been transferred to the discharge area.

Your child may have a low-grade fever (99° to 100°F) for a day or two after surgery.

There may be a thin, watery discharge from either ear (pink, clear, yellow, or even bloody in color) for 2 or 3 days. Your doctor may give you some ear drops to use after surgery to help control the drainage.

Your child may have an earache the day of surgery. This is caused by pressure changes in the ear and/or hearing louder sounds than he or she is used to. You can treat this short term discomfort with Tylenol® (acetaminophen) or Children's Motrin® (ibuprofen). You will get a Discharge Instructions sheet before you go home which will indicate how much medicine to give and how often.

You can expect your child to be back to his or her regular diet and activities within 24 hours after surgery.

How should I take care of my child’s ears after surgery?

Your child’s ears do not require any special care after surgery. You do not have to worry about getting water in the ear canals with bathing, washing the hair, or even swimming in shallow water.

If your child is older and dives deep under water while swimming, talk to your doctor about the need for ear plugs while swimming.

Answers to other frequently asked questions…

Airplane travel is okay with ear tubes. In fact, ear tubes will prevent the painful pressure changes that children can otherwise experience during air travel.

Ear tubes will not prevent all ear infections, but your child should not have as many and they should not last as long as before surgery. You will notice drainage or a bad smell from the ears if they become infected. You should call your pediatrician, family doctor, or ears, nose, and throat doctor if your child’s ears are draining.

Most ear tubes will fall out anytime between 6 months and 2 years after they were put in. The hole in the eardrum usually closes up by itself shortly after the tube falls out. Although uncommon, sometimes a second operation is required to patch the hole.

If you have any questions or would like further information specific to your child, please call our office at (612) 874-1292.

This information is provided as a service to our patients. The information is for educational and informational purposes only and should NOT be used as a substitute for the advice of your child's physician.