While the child is asleep and pain-free (general anesthesia), a small surgical cut is made in the eardrum. Any fluid that has collected behind the eardrum is removed with suction through this cut.
Then, a small tube is placed through the eardrum. The tube allows air to flow in so that pressure is the same on both sides of the eardrum. Also, trapped fluid can flow out of the middle ear. This prevents hearing loss and reduces the risk of ear infections.
Why the Procedure Is Performed
The buildup of fluid behind your child's eardrum may cause some hearing loss. But most children do not have long-term damage to their hearing or speech, even when the fluid is there for many months. See: Otitis media with effusion
Ear tube insertion may be done when fluid builds up behind your child's eardrum and:
Does not go away after 3 months and both ears are affected
Does not go away after 6 months and fluid is only in one ear
Ear infections that do not go away with treatment or that keep coming back are also reasons for placing an ear tube. If an infection does not go away with treatment, or if a child has many ear infections over a short period of time, the doctor may recommend ear tubes.
Ear tubes are also sometimes used for people of any age who have:
A severe ear infection that spreads to nearby bones (mastoiditis) or the brain, or that damages nearby nerves
Pressure injury to the ear from flying or deep sea diving (barotrauma)
Hole in the eardrum that does not heal after the tube falls out
These problems do not usually last long. They also do not usually cause problems in children. Your doctor can explain these complications in more detail.
The risks for any anesthesia are:
Reactions to medicines
The risks for any surgery are:
Before the Procedure
Your child's ear doctor may ask for a medical history and physical exam of your child before the procedure is done. A hearing test is also recommended before the procedure is done.
Always tell your child's doctor or nurse:
What drugs your child is taking. Include drugs, herbs, and vitamins you bought without a prescription
What allergies your child may have to any medicines, latex, tape, or skin cleaner
On the day of the surgery:
Your child will usually be asked not to drink or eat anything after midnight the night before the surgery.
Give your child a small sip of water with any drugs your doctor told you to give your child.
Your child's doctor or nurse will tell you when to arrive at the hospital.
The doctor will make sure your child is healthy enough for surgery. This means your child has no signs of illness or infection. If your child is ill, the surgery may be delayed.
After the Procedure
Children usually stay in the recovery room for a short time and leave the hospital the same day as the ear tubes are inserted. Your child may be groggy and fussy for an hour or so while waking up from anesthesia. Your child's doctor may prescribe ear drops or antibiotics for a few days after the surgery.
Most children can return to normal activities the day after the surgery.
Some ear doctors will recommend using earplugs or swimmer's headbands while swimming or bathing to keep water out of the ears. If earplugs are not recommended for these activities, they may be recommended for diving in deep water. Check with your health care provider.
The surgical cut heals on its own, without stitches. The hole closes, and the ear tubes usually fall out on their own after 14 months or so.
After this procedure, most parents report that their children:
Have fewer ear infections
Recover more quickly from infections
If the tubes do not fall out on their own in a few years, an ear specialist may have to remove them. If ear infections return after the tubes fall out, another set of ear tubes can be inserted.
Paradise JL, Feldman HM, Campbell TF, Dollaghan CA, Rockette HE, Pitcairn DL, et al. Tympanostomy tubes and developmental outcomes at 9 to 11 years of age. N Engl J Med. 2007; 356(3):248-61.
Casselbrant ML, Mandel EM. Acute otitis media and otitis media with effusion. In: Cummings CW, Flint PW, Haughey BH, et al, eds. Otolaryngology: Head & Neck Surgery. 5th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2010:chap 194.
Browning GG, Rovers MM, Williamson I, Lous J, Burton MJ. Grommets (ventilation tubes) for hearing loss associated with otitis media with effusion in children. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2010;(10):CD001801.
Seth Schwartz, MD, MPH, Otolaryngologist, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.