Your eardrums are thin pieces of tissue deep in your ears. The space behind the eardrum—called the middle ear—is connected to the back of the nose by a tube. This tube, called the eustachian tube, allows air to fill this space and fluid to drain from the middle ear.
But sometimes these tubes don't work properly. This can occur because of allergies, colds, or interference from structures in the back of the nose called adenoids. As a result, fluid can build up behind the eardrums. This can cause pain and hearing loss. Sometimes an infection can also occur deep in the ears.
During ear tube insertion, a doctor places a tiny tube into the eardrum to let fluid escape from the middle ear. It also lets air enter the middle ear through the eardrum. By the time these tubes come out, the body's natural passageway from the middle ear to the back of the nose may be working better. But sometimes another tube will need to be replaced.
The tubes are made of various materials. The doctor may insert tubes that fall out on their own after six months to a year. Another kind is made to stay in place longer, and the doctor may need to remove them later.
Sometimes, surgeons also remove the adenoids during the same surgery.
This procedure is especially common in children, but adults can also require it. A doctor may want to do the procedure if your child has had fluid in the ear for several months. It may also be necessary if he has had a long-running ear infection or gets these infections often.
Some people may need tubes if their ears or mouth aren't shaped normally. People may also need tubes if they've had ear injuries caused by changes in air pressure. This can happen from flying or scuba diving.
Possible risks of this procedure include:
Problems related to anesthesia, such as breathing trouble or reaction to medications
Scarring of the eardrum
A hole in the eardrum that doesn't heal after the tube comes out. This may require another procedure to repair it.
The tube may come out too early. Or it may stay in place too long, requiring the doctor to remove it.
There may be other risks, depending on your child’s specific medical condition. Be sure to discuss any concerns with the doctor before the procedure.
The doctor will want to check on your child's health and hearing before the procedure. Be sure to discuss any medications or supplements your child is taking, and mention any allergies.
Your child will need to avoid eating or drinking anything after midnight before the surgery. He or she will usually need to arrive a few hours before the surgery.
Children are put to sleep with anesthesia so they aren't aware of the surgery or feeling pain during the procedure. Older children and adults may be able to handle the procedure without being put to sleep.
The doctor makes a very small hole in the eardrum using a small scalpel. Next, the doctor uses a suction device to pull fluid out of the middle ear through this hole. Then the tube is placed into the hole. The entire procedure usually takes less than 15 minutes. The hole will usually heal on its own without stitches.
Your child will go to a recovery room to wake up, and may feel sleepy and irritable for an hour or two after waking up from the anesthesia. Noises may seem especially loud for a while. In most cases, your child will be able to go home the same day.
The doctor may suggest that your child use special ear drops for a few days after the surgery. During this time, you may notice fluid coming out of the ear. Your child can resume normal play the next day, and can start eating normal food as soon as he or she feels like it.
Your child may need to take care to keep water out of the ear while the tube is in place. As a result, you may need to put an ear plug or cotton ball covered in petroleum jelly into the ear before your child swims or takes a bath.
Be sure to keep any follow-up appointments so the doctor can check on your child. Call the doctor if you notice:
Drainage from the ear that smells bad, is thick, or has a yellow or green color.