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Ear Tubes Surgery

What are ventilation tubes?

Ventilation tubes are tiny plastic tubes that are surgically inserted through the eardrum by an ear, nose, and throat surgeon. They also may be called tympanostomy tubes, myringotomy tubes, ventilation tubes, or PE (pressure equalization) tubes. Ventilation tubes drain fluid out of the middle ear space and let air in.

Why are ventilation tubes needed?

The eardrum normally vibrates with sound because the space behind it (the middle ear) is filled with air. If the middle ear is filled with fluid, as occurs during an ear infection, hearing is muffled.

Sometimes after an ear is no longer infected, fluid remains in the ear. This occurs if the eustachian tube, which runs from the back of the nose to the middle ear, becomes blocked and no longer allows air in and fluid out.

Approximately 30% of children still have fluid in the middle ear 1 month after an ear infection. 20% still have fluid 2 months, 10% at 3 months, and 5% have fluid 4 months after the infection. Fluid is especially likely to stay in the ear if the first infection occurs before a child is 6 months old. By the time a child is 5 years old, the eustachian tube is wider, and fluid usually doesn't stay long after ear infections are treated.

The main concern about having fluid in the middle ear for a long time is that it temporarily affects the child’s speech and hearing AND makes him prone to recurrent ear infections.

What are the benefits of ventilation tubes?

Ventilation tubes allow fluid to drain out of the middle ear space and allow air to reenter. Putting in ear tubes may:

  • Reduce the risk of recurring ear infections
  • Return hearing to normal
  • Get speech development back on track and improve balance
  • Prevent the fluid from becoming thicker (a "glue ear")

What are the risks of ventilation tubes?

A few children with ventilation tubes continue to have ear infections with drainage and pain. However, these bouts of infection that require antibiotics probably would have occurred without the tubes.

Normally the tubes come out and fall into the ear canal after about a year. Complications may occur when the tubes come out. Sometimes they come out too quickly and need to be replaced by another set. Rarely, they fall into the middle ear space and need to be removed by the surgeon. If the tubes remain in the eardrum for over 2 years, the surgeon may need to remove them.

After the tubes come out, they may leave scars on the eardrum or a small hole (perforation) that doesn't heal. Both of these problems can cause a small hearing loss.

Because of these possible complications and the need to give anesthesia to young children before the operation, physicians recommend ventilation tubes only for children who really need them.

When is ventilation tube surgery recommended?

The surgical placement of ventilation tubes is usually recommended for middle ear fluid if your child has the following conditions:

  • Fluid has been present in the middle ear continuously for over 4 months.
  • Both ears have fluid.
  • The fluid has caused a documented hearing loss greater than 20 dB. However, many children with fluid in their ears have nearly normal hearing.

Ventilation tube placement is also recommended for severe ear infections such as:

  • Recurrent ear infections (3 or more within a 6 month period.)
  • Ear infections do not clear up after trying multiple antibiotics.
  • Complications of ear infections such as a mastoid infection or paralysis of the facial nerve (giving a "crooked smile").

What if my child has temporary hearing loss from ear fluid?

Most children have only temporary hearing loss because of fluid in their middle ears. When you talk to your child during this time of temporary hearing loss, get close to him, seek eye contact, get his full attention, and occasionally check that he understands what you have said. If your child is not hearing you well, speak in a louder voice than you normally use. A common mistake is to assume your child is ignoring you when actually he doesn't hear you. Reduce background noise from radio or television while you talk with your child.

If your child goes to school, make sure that he sits near the teacher. (Fluid in the middle ear makes it difficult to hear in a crowd or classroom).

After ventilation tube surgery, the hearing loss caused by fluid in the middle ear is cleared up right away. Sometimes children even complain that normal sounds seem too loud. Keep in mind that most children's speech development will catch up after a brief period of partial hearing.

How can I help prevent chronic ear fluid?

Chronic ear fluid and recurrent ear infections are usually caused by a blocked eustachian tube. However, there are other things you can do to help:

  • Do not allow smoking around children.
  • Do not allow your child to drink from a bottle while lying down (called bottle propping). This can cause milk to enter the middle ear space.
  • Have your child checked for hay fever, eczema, asthma, or food allergies. These can cause ear fluid to build up more often.
  • If your child snores every night, have him checked for large adenoids.

Treat or eliminate these factors before you consider ventilation tubes.

When should I call my child's healthcare provider?

Call during office hours if:

  • You have other questions or concerns about ventilation tubes.
Written by Barton D. Schmitt, MD, author of “My Child Is Sick,” American Academy of Pediatrics Books.
Pediatric Advisor 2019.4 published by Change Healthcare.
Last modified: 2018-07-13
Last reviewed: 2018-07-13
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2018 Barton D. Schmitt, MD FAAP. All rights reserved.
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