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An ear tube insertion is when a doctor inserts tiny tubes, known as tympanostomy tubes or grommets, into the eardrum to reduce the occurrence of ear infections and allow drainage of excess fluids. The procedure is very common and poses minimal risks. An ear tube insertion is more common for children, who tend to suffer ear infections more often than adults.
According to the American Academy of Otolaryngology, ear tube insertion is the most common childhood surgery performed with anesthesia. The procedure is usually performed because of bacteria that travel from the nasal cavity into the ear during a cold or other respiratory ailment. This influx of bacteria stimulates inflammation and causes a fluid buildup behind the eardrum.
Adults can also get ear infections, but children get them more frequently because they have smaller eustachian tubes that are more likely to clog. The National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders says that five out of six children will have at least one ear infection by their third birthday.
Ear infections will often go away with time, but antibiotics can treat them effectively as well. Sometimes, however, a person will experience recurrent ear infections and fluid buildup, or have an ear infection that won’t heal for months. These issues can cause problems that may lead to hearing loss, behavioral issues, and speech development delays in children.
Individuals who suffer from severe ear infections that spread to nearby tissues and bones, or experience a pressure injury from flying or deep sea diving may also require an ear tube insertion.
For the insertion, an otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat doctor) places tiny plastic or metal tubes in the eardrum. Once inside the ear, these tubes will:
Ear tube insertion, also called myringotomy and tympanostomy tube placement, is a very common procedure performed under general anesthesia. During the procedure, the patient is asleep and breathing on their own. The surgical team monitors heart rate, blood pressure, and blood oxygen throughout the surgery.
The actual surgery takes only about 10 to 15 minutes. During this time, the surgeon performs the following steps:
Ear tube insertion is a common and safe procedure. On rare occasions, however, complications may occur. Check with your doctor if you:
After the surgery, patients typically stay in the recovery room for a short time and leave the hospital on the same day. To reduce your chances of infection, the doctor may prescribe antibiotics or eardrops, and you may use over-the-counter pain relievers for any discomfort.
Your doctor may also recommend that you cover your ears when bathing or swimming to help reduce the risk of bacteria entering the middle ear. Earplugs and other watertight devices work well.
Otherwise, the ear will heal by itself, securing the tubes in place until they eventually fall out. If the tubes fall out prematurely, be sure to contact your doctor.
The good news is that after surgery, most people experience far fewer ear infections and recover faster from any infections they do get. They also sleep more soundly, hear better, and feel better in general.
Written by: Colleen M. Story
Medically reviewed on: May 02, 2017: Daniel Murrell, MD
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