What are Ear Tubes?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Ear tubes are also called tympanostomy tubes and in the UK, they may be called ear grommets. These small tubes, which resemble a spool of thread, are only about 1/20 an inch (1.5 mm) in length. They may be used when children from the ages of six months and up, suffer from ear infections on a regular basis.

Ear tubes are placed in the middle ear to help reduce infections.
Ear tubes are placed in the middle ear to help reduce infections.

Babies and children who have frequent middle ear infections (otitis media) may be prone to hearing loss, usually temporary, and speech delays. This is because as the middle ear fills with fluid or pus, it places pressure on the eardrum. When the eardrum receives sound it vibrates, but it cannot do so well when pressure from otitis media occurs. Otitis media can additionally be very painful, especially in babies and kids, creating sleepless nights, crankiness and general suffering.

Children attending daycare facilities may suffer frequent ear infections.
Children attending daycare facilities may suffer frequent ear infections.

When children encounter ear infections on a frequent basis, ear tubes may be elected to help relieve this pressure, and the procedure, called a myringotomy, is very common and usually outpatient. During the surgery to place ear tubes, ear nose throat (ENT) specialists create a tiny incision in the eardrum and insert the ear tube in it. Placing the tube there allows air to flow into the middle ear space and makes it much easier for any congestion to drain from the ear. Usually children get ear tubes in both ears.

In many cases getting tubes in the ears helps to reduce number of yearly infections, but the tubes are not permanent. As a child grows and the incision in the eardrum heals, the ear tubes usually fall out. By that time many kids may no longer need them, though if the first tubes are placed before a child is two, they may need another set.

Indication for which children should get ear tubes varies. Children who have fluid in the ears for several months following an ear infection may require them. Chronic ear infections over a period of six months to a year, hearing loss and/or speech delays, and other conditions like bad allergies are all potential indicators for myringotomy.

If you think your child might require tympanostomy tubes, consult with your child’s doctor. You will probably receive a referral to speak with an ENT who can scrutinize your child’s medical history to see if they would benefit from myringotomy. In infancy and early toddlerhood, a few things may help prevent the need for ear tubes. Breastfeeding reduces risk of ear infection, while exposure to second hand smoke puts children at much greater risk for increased otitis media. Children in daycare facilities are more likely to suffer frequent ear infections, though for many parents, it’s not exactly easy to avoid putting a child in daycare if they must work outside the home.

Children who suffer from chronic ear infections may suffer from hearing loss and speech delays.
Children who suffer from chronic ear infections may suffer from hearing loss and speech delays.
Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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