Ear Tubes: What to Expect

If your child gets frequent infections or fluid build-up in his middle ear, your doctor may recommend ear tubes. Some adults might need them, too, but it’s not as common.

A doctor will have to do a brief surgery to put them in. Your doctor may put in antibiotic ear drops during or after the surgery to help prevent infections.

Once in place, the tubes can help you or a child in your care get relief from the pain and loss of hearing from these infections.

How Do Ear Tubes Work?

They help improve air flow and balance pressure in the middle ear, the space right behind the eardrum. This allows fluid to drain out better.

If you’re child has trouble with balance or delays in learning because of hearing problems, those will likely improve in the weeks and months after the tubes are in place.

Your child can still get ear infections with tubes, but usually not as many. The infections also won’t cause hearing loss and tend to go away on their own or with antibiotic eardrops.

What’s the Surgery Like?

The first step for younger children is to get medicine so they’ll sleep through the surgery. The main reason for this is to make sure your child doesn’t move during the procedure.

You’ll take your youngster to a hospital or outpatient surgery center, and doctors keep a close eye on his heart rate, oxygen, and blood pressure to make sure everything’s going well.

Older children and adults can have the surgery while they’re awake. For them, it can be done in the doctor’s office.

The surgery itself takes about 15 minutes and has three steps. The doctor will:

  • Make a small opening in the eardrum
  • Drain fluid
  • Place the tube in the opening

Preparation

Your doctor will give you details on how to get ready. Children who need to be given something to sleep will have to fast, or go without eating, for a certain number of hours before the surgery. Your child won’t be able to eat anything and can only drink certain liquids.

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Check with your doctor to make sure you know:

  • How long your child has to fast
  • What liquids are OK to drink
  • If your child can take any medicine beforehand

Your doctor also will want to know about:

  • Any medicine your child takes
  • Problems your child or anyone in your family has with drugs used for anesthesia (which make you unconscious so you won’t feel pain)
  • Drug allergies your child has

For adults getting ear tubes, your doctor may have similar questions.

How Can I Comfort My Child?

Children, like some adults, will have concerns about what’s happening. To help a little girl or boy in your care get ready for surgery, you may want to:

  • Ask questions so she can talk about her feelings and you can make sure she’s not confused about anything.
  • Be specific about how the surgery will help, such as “Your ear will feel so much better!”
  • Talk ahead of time about going to the hospital -- a good general rule is to talk 2 days ahead of time for a 2 year old, 3 days for a 3 year old, and so on.
  • Let him pick a toy or blanket to take to the hospital.
  • Remind her you’ll be there the whole time.

As you talk with children, it’s best to avoid certain phrases.

If you say “put you to sleep,” that may remind them of a pet that’s been put down. Instead, you could talk about how a special doctor has medicine to help them sleep really well.

The words “cut” or “make a hole” may make a child think of pain. Instead, you can say “make a small opening.”

Recovery

Children who have been given anesthesia take some time to fully wake up.

They may be groggy, fussy, or a little queasy within the first 24 hours, but after that, they should be back to normal. You can usually take them home a few hours after the surgery.

Your child can go home right away if he wasn’t given any anesthesia. The same is true for adults who get tubes.

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Your doctor will talk to you about next steps. If everything goes as expected, this might mean a follow-up in 2 to 4 weeks, a hearing test, or eardrops to limit fluid coming from the ears.

If you see yellow, brown, or bloody fluid from the ear for more than a week after surgery, tell your doctor. You’ll also want to check with her if your loved one has ear pain, hearing problems, or seems to have trouble with balance.

When Do the Tubes Come Out?

There are two main types of tubes:

  • Short-term tubes go in for 6 to 18 months and usually fall out on their own.
  • Long-term tubes fall out on their own or could be taken out by a doctor.

It’s rare, but sometimes tubes come out early. If that happens and fluid returns, your doctor may need to do the surgery again. Also, if they stay in too long, your doctor may have to remove them.

Once the tubes are out, the eardrum usually closes up on its own. If it doesn’t, your doctor may do a procedure to fix it.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by William Blahd, MD on October 14, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

American Academy of Otolaryngology -- Head and Neck Surgery: “Ear Tubes.”

Mayo Clinic: “Ear tubes,” “Ear infection (middle ear).”

Unity Point Health: “Frequently Asked Questions About Ear Tubes.”

National Health Service: “Can I eat or drink before an operation?”

St. Joseph’s Children’s Hospital: “Preparing Your Child for Surgery.”

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