Painful ear infections are a rite of passage for children by age five; nearly every child has experienced at least one episode. Most ear infections either resolve on their own (viral) or are effectively treated by antibiotics (bacterial). But sometimes, ear infections and/or fluid in the middle ear may become a chronic problem leading to other issues, such as hearing loss or behavior and speech problems. In these cases, an otolaryngologist’s (ear, nose, and throat specialist) insertion of an ear tube may be considered.
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 PE (pressure equalization) tubes.
These tubes can be made out of various materials and may have a coating intended to reduce the possibility of 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 may be necessary.
Ear tubes are often recommended when a person experiences repeated middle ear infection (acute otitis media) or have 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 be present 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 the placement of ear tubes are malformation of the eardrum or eustachian tube, Down Syndrome, cleft palate, and barotrauma (injury to the middle ear caused by a reduction of air pressure, usually seen with altitude changes as in flying and scuba diving).
More than half a million ear tube surgeries are performed on children each year, making it the most common childhood surgery performed with anesthesia. The average age for ear tube insertion is one to three years old. Inserting ear tubes may:
Ear tubes are inserted through an outpatient surgical procedure called a myringotomy. A myringotomy refers to an incision (small hole) in the eardrum or tympanic membrane. This is most often done under a surgical microscope with a small scalpel, 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 general anesthetic is administered to young children. Some older children and adults may be able to tolerate the procedure without an anesthetic. 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 prescribed for a few days. The procedure usually lasts less than 15 minutes, and patients awaken quickly.
Sometimes the otolaryngologist will recommend removing the adenoid tissue (lymph tissue located in the upper airway behind the nose) when ear tubes are placed. This is often considered when a second or third tube insertion is necessary. Current research indicates that removing adenoid tissue concurrent with the placement of ear tubes can reduce the risk of recurrent ear infections and the need for repeat surgery.
After surgery, the patient is monitored in the recovery room and will usually go home within an hour or two if no complications occur. Patients usually experience little or no postoperative pain, but grogginess, irritability, and/or nausea from the anesthesia can occur temporarily.
Hearing loss caused by the presence of middle ear fluid is immediately resolved by surgery.
The otolaryngologist will provide specific postoperative instructions, including when to seek immediate attention and to set follow-up appointments. He or she may also prescribe antibiotic ear drops for a few days. An audiogram should be performed after surgery if hearing loss is present before the tubes are placed. This test will make sure that hearing has improved with the surgery.
To avoid the possibility of bacteria 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. Parents should consult with the treating physician about ear protection after surgery.