Ear Tubes

What are ear tubes?

Ear tubes, also known as myringotomy tubes, are small tubes that are surgically placed into your child's eardrum by an ear, nose and throat surgeon. The tubes may be made of plastic, metal or Teflon. The tubes are placed to help drain the fluid out of the middle ear in order to reduce the risk of ear infections.

During an ear infection, fluid gathers in the middle ear, which can affect your child's hearing. Sometimes, even after the infection is gone, some fluid may remain in the ear. The tubes help drain this fluid, and prevent it from building up.

Ear tubes come in a variety of sizes, shapes and materials that allow surgeons to best fit the tube to your child, but they're all designed to create an artificial hole in the eardrum to ventilate the middle ear.

About one million children each year have tubes placed in their ears. The most common ages are from 1 to 3 years old. By the age of 5 years, most children have wider and longer eustachian tubes (a canal that links the middle ear with the throat area), allowing better drainage of fluids from the ear.

Why are ear tubes recommended?

The insertion of ear tubes may be recommended by your child's physician and/or an ear, nose, and throat physician if your child has:

  • fluid in the ears for more than three or four months following an ear infection
  • fluid in the ears and more than three months of hearing loss
  • changes in the actual structure of her eardrum from ear infections
  • a delay in speaking
  • repeated ear infections that do not improve with antibiotics over several months

Once placed, ear tubes are usually successful in significantly reducing ear infections — or eliminating them altogether. Most children will get one or two infections a year, and the infected pus typically drains on its own, thanks to the opening created by the tubes.

What to expect from myringotomy

Myringotomy is the surgical procedure that is performed to insert ear tubes. Insertion of the tubes is usually an outpatient procedure. This means that your child will have surgery, and then go home that same day.

Myringotomy involves making a small opening in the eardrum to drain the fluid and relieve the pressure from the middle ear. A small tube is placed in the opening of the eardrum to ventilate the middle ear and to prevent fluid from accumulating. Your child's hearing is restored after the fluid is drained. The tubes usually fall out on their own after six to 12 months.

Fortunately, ear tubes require relatively little follow-up. Children who get them return to their otolaryngologist's office a month after the procedure, then every six months after that. The tubes usually fall out on their own within nine to 12 months after placement. By that point, most children have outgrown their ear problems and don't require additional sets of tubes.