An ear tube insertion is a procedure by which a specialized physician inserts tiny tubes into one’s eardrum to reduce the occurrence of ear infections and allow drainage of excess fluids. The procedure is very common and poses minimal risks. Though it may be performed on individuals of all ages, the procedure is most often performed on children, who suffer ear infections more often than adults.
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, by the age of five, nearly every child has experienced at least one painful ear infection. (American Academy of Otolaryngology) Bacteria that travel from the nasal cavity into the ear during a cold or other respiratory ailment are typically the cause. The influx of bacteria stimulates inflammation and causes a fluid buildup behind the eardrum.
Adults can get ear infections too, but children get them more often because they have smaller Eustachian tubes that are more likely to get clogged. Three out of four children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday. (National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, 2011)
Many times, ear infections will go away on their own, but they can be treated effectively with antibiotics. Sometimes, however, individuals will experience recurrent ear infections and fluid buildup, or go for months with an ear infection that will not heal. These issues can cause problems that may lead to hearing loss, behavior problems, and speech development delays in children.
Individuals who suffer severe ear infections that spread to nearby tissues and bones or suffer a pressure injury from flying or deep-sea diving may also experience similar symptoms that require an ear tube procedure.
Ear tubes are tiny plastic or metal tubes placed in the eardrum by an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat specialist). Once inside the ear, these tubes function to:
- Reduce pressure. Ear infections and fluid buildup increase pressure inside the ear, which is what causes pain. Ear tubes allow air to enter the ear, equalizing the pressure between the inner ear and the outside world. This eases pain and helps prevent accumulation of liquid in the middle ear.
- Drain fluid. Ear tubes allow pus and mucus buildup from ear infections to drain out of the ear without causing pain or increasing risk of other related complications.
- Receive treatment drops. Tubes also make it easier to use antibiotic drops in the ears to treat infections. The tubes function as a passageway, permitting the drops to travel directly into the ear. Because they make antibiotic drops easier to use, they can eliminate the need for oral antibiotic treatment.
Ear tube insertion, also called myringotomy and tympanostomy tube placement, is a very common procedure performed under general anesthesia. The patient is asleep, but breathing on his or her own. The surgical team monitors heart rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygen throughout the procedure.
The actual surgery takes only about 10 to 15 minutes. The surgeon performs the following steps:
- Makes an incision. The surgeon makes a tiny incision in the eardrum with a small scalpel or laser. If left alone, this incision would close and heal within a few days.
- Removes fluid. Using a tiny vacuum, the surgeon suctions out any excess fluids from the middle ear, cleaning out the area. This is called aspiration of the middle ear. Some researchers have debated as to whether or not this step is necessary or helpful. Your doctor will determine if this step is necessary.
- Inserts the tube. To allow air to enter your ear and to drain the fluid, the surgeon inserts the tiny tube into the hole made by the incision. The surgeon may place short-term tubes, which are smaller and remain in the ear for six to 12 months before falling out on their own, or long-term tubes, which are larger and typically stay in place for a longer period.
Patients typically stay in the recovery room for a short time and often leave the hospital on the same day. To reduce chances of infection, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics and/or eardrops, and you may use over-the-counter pain relievers for any discomfort.
Your doctor may also recommend that you cover your ears when bathing or swimming, to help reduce the risk of bacteria entering the middle ear. Earplugs and other watertight devices work well. Otherwise, the ear will heal by itself, securing the tubes in place until they fall out eventually on their own. (If the tubes fall out prematurely, be sure to contact your doctor.)
The good news is that after surgery, most people:
- experience far fewer ear infections
- recover faster from any infections they have
- sleep more soundly
- hear better
- feel better in general
Ear tube insertion is very common and safe. On rare occasions, however, complications may occur. Check with your doctor if you:
- experience a high fever of 102° F or more
- notice green pus-like drainage coming out of your ear for more than a week
- experience persistent pain or continuous bleeding (Note that some bleeding on the first day after surgery is common.)