Ear tubes may go by several names, such as myringotomy tubes, tympanostomy tubes, ventilation tubes, or pressure equalization tubes. Regardless of what they’re called, ear tubes are tiny cylinders that are placed in the eardrum during a minor surgical procedure. The purpose of these tubes is to keep the middle ear aerated and free of fluid. This may help reduce the risk of infection and improve hearing.
How Do Ear Tubes Work?
The middle ear is the space behind the eardrum that contains the tiny bones of the ear (the hammer, anvil, and stirrup). These bones transmit sound from the eardrum to the inner ear. The middle ear is normally filled with air, but when a person has an infection, this space can fill with fluid, and pressure can build. This may cause pain and muffled hearing.
Ear tubes create an artificial eardrum opening so that fluid can drain and airflow can be restored to the middle ear. This helps reduce pressure and pain, as well as improve hearing. Ear tubes are cylinder-shaped and may be made of different materials, such as metal, plastic, or silicone.
What Conditions Can Ear Tubes Help Treat?
Ear tubes are most commonly used to treat children with persistent middle ear infections or fluid in the middle ear. However, ear tubes may also be used to treat adults with these conditions.
Middle ear infections are more common in children than adults because their eustachian tubes are narrower and horizontal, making it easier for fluid and bacteria to become trapped. Common conditions that may benefit from ear tubes include:
Acute Otitis Media
Acute otitis media (AOM) is one of the most common reasons for ear tubes. AOM is the 2nd most common diagnosis pediatricians make behind upper respiratory infections. Children with AOM have a sudden onset of middle ear effusion (fluid) and pain. AOM is caused by bacteria, most often viruses, and may occur after a cold or other upper respiratory infection.
This condition is most common in infants and children under two. In fact, otitis media is so common that 80% of children will have it at least once in their life. Although most cases of AOM are seen in children, this condition may occur at any age.
Chronic Suppurative Otitis Media
Chronic suppurative otitis media (CSOM) is a persistent inflammation of the middle ear that usually results in an eardrum tear and discharge from the ear. The common causes of chronic suppurative otitis media are:
- Ear infections
- Eustachian tube blockage
- Injuries or trauma to the ear
After surgically repairing the eardrum, a small tube is placed in the opening to drain the discharge and allow for ear drops to be placed directly into the middle ear. This condition may cause loss of hearing if not treated properly.
Otitis Media With Effusion
Otitis media with effusion (OME) is the accumulation of fluid in the middle ear without signs or symptoms of infection. OME may occur due to persistent fluids after an infection has resolved, problems with the eustachian tube, or other conditions that prevent the ear from draining properly.
If left untreated, this condition may cause issues with hearing and balance. Ear tubes are especially useful in children who are experiencing delayed speech development, delays in learning, or repeated ear infections.
Chronic Middle Ear Infections
If your middle ear infection doesn’t go away after using antibiotics or you have three or more ear infections in six months, you may have chronic otitis media. An ear tube allows antibiotics to be placed directly into the middle ear and may help prevent further infections.
When Does a Person Need Ear Tubes?
The best way to determine if you or your child need ear tubes is to schedule an appointment with an otorhinolaryngologist. An otorhinolaryngologist is a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of conditions of the ear, nose, throat, head, and neck.
While a visit to the doctor is the best way to determine if ear tubes are necessary, there are some common signs and symptoms that may indicate a need for this procedure. These include:
- Frequent ear infections
- Ear pain
- Difficulty hearing
- Fluid in the middle ear
- A feeling of fullness in the ear
- Drainage from the ear
- Trouble equalizing pressure in the ears
If you or your child are experiencing any of these symptoms, it’s important to schedule an appointment with a doctor. In addition to the above symptoms, if you notice your child frequently pulling or rubbing their ear, this may also be a sign of an ear infection. It’s important to note that not all children who experience frequent ear infections need ear tubes. In some cases, the infections may resolve with antibiotics alone.
What to Expect During the Ear Tube Procedure:
Once it is determined that ear tubes are necessary, the next step is to schedule the procedure. This procedure typically takes about 20 minutes to complete and is performed as an outpatient procedure. This means you may be able to go home the same day.
Before the procedure begins, your surgeon will use general anesthesia to prevent you from feeling any pain. The surgeon will then make a tiny incision in your eardrum using a scalpel or laser. Next, the surgeon will suction out any fluid in the middle ear. Once the fluid is removed, the surgeon will place the ear tube into the incision.
Once the procedure is complete, you will be taken to a recovery room, where you will be monitored for complications. If there are no complications, you will be able to go home within a few hours. Be sure to have someone drive you home, as the anesthesia may impair your driving ability.
You may have nausea and feel tired after the surgery. However, these side effects are expected and should resolve within 24 hours. Your surgeon will provide specific instructions on how to care for your ear following the procedure. These instructions will likely include:
- A follow-up appointment no more than four weeks after the surgery
- Using prescription ear drops to prevent an infection after the procedure
- Taking a hearing test
Be sure to use ear drops as prescribed and attend all follow-up appointments. This will help ensure a successful outcome from the procedure. You will likely be able to swim without using earplugs unless otherwise instructed by your surgeon. In most cases, the ear tube will eventually fall out on its own after four to 18 months.
Treat Your Ear Pain at the Ear and Sinus Institute
At the Ear and Sinus Institute, we understand the frustration that comes with ear infections and frequent ear pain. If you or your child are struggling with an ear infection, our specialists will work with you to provide the best solution for your individual case. Book an appointment with us today and find relief from your ear pain.
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