Ear Tubes

Ear tubes are tiny, hollow cylinders, usually made of plastic, that are surgically inserted into the eardrum. An ear tube creates an airway that ventilates the middle ear and prevents the accumulation of fluids behind the eardrum. Ear tubes can also be called tympanostomy tubes, ventilation tubes, myringotomy tubes or pressure equalization tubes.

Ventilation of the middle ear is normally accomplished by the Eustachian tubes — narrow tubes that run from each middle ear to high in the back of the throat. The throat end of each tube opens and closes to:

  • Regulate air pressure in the middle ear

  • Refresh air in the ear

  • Drain secretions from the middle ear

Swelling, inflammation and mucus in the Eustachian tubes from an upper respiratory infection or allergy can block the tubes, causing the accumulation of fluids in the middle ear. This problem is more common in children, in part because their Eustachian tubes are narrower and more horizontal — factors that make them more difficult to drain and more likely to get clogged.

Ear tubes provide an alternative airway to keep the air in the middle ear refreshed, allow for drainage and equalize the pressure inside the ear with air pressure outside the body.

The tubes are most often used in children with one of the following conditions:

  • Fluid trapped behind the eardrum results in inflammation and fluid buildup (effusion) in the middle ear with or without bacterial or viral infection. This may occur because the fluid buildup persists even after an ear infection has resolved. It may also occur because of some dysfunction or noninfectious blockage of the Eustachian tubes.

  • Hearing loss often results from otitis media with effusion, which is middle ear infection in trapped fluid. Hearing loss can lead to delays in speech development, communication problems, behavior problems and poor school performance.

  • Middle ear infections are generally considered frequent if there are three or more distinct episodes in six months or four or more episodes in a year. Ear tubes may help prevent recurring infections.

  • Chronic middle ear infections are long-term infections of the middle ear that don’t improve with antibiotic treatment.

  • Chronic suppurative otitis media is a persistent ear infection that may result in tearing or perforation of the eardrum.

Most ear tubes fall out within six to nine months, and the holes heal on their own. Some tubes need to be removed, and some holes may need to be closed surgically.

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