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Understanding Your Child's Ear Tube Surgery

Understanding Your Child's Ear Tube Surgery

By Joshua D. Bradley, MD

Mar 15, 2018

Updated Oct 25, 2023

5 min read

Understanding your childs ear tube surgery

Has your toddler had chronic ear infections? Maybe they’ve even had a difficult time hearing or talking normally. Just when you’re feeling at a loss about what to do, your doctor suggests ear tube surgery. The trouble is, you aren’t sure your child is ready for surgery, or what you can expect from the procedure.

Why does your child need ear tubes?

Ear tubes (also called tympanostomy tubes) are small plastic or metal tubes inserted in your child’s eardrums. They create an airway that ventilates the middle ear and prevents fluid from accumulating behind the eardrum. Ear tubes are effective in helping your child if they have:

  • Significant hearing loss from fluid behind the eardrums for more than 3 months
  • Repeat ear infections that haven’t responded to previous treatments

Ear tubes can prevent pressure and pain in the middle ear and often result in restored hearing. Because fluids have chance to drain with ear tubes, your child may have less ear infections while the tubes are in place.

What to expect from ear tube surgery

If the thought of your child undergoing surgery makes you nervous, take comfort that your child’s ear tubes will be placed by a surgeon who specializes in ear, nose, and throat disorders. Because your child will be under general anesthesia during surgery, they won’t be in pain or aware of what’s happening. Anesthesia will be administered and they’ll be monitored by an anesthesiologist throughout the short surgery.

During your child’s ear tube surgery, the surgeon will make a small incision in each eardrum with a small scalpel or laser. Any fluid in the middle ear is then suctioned out and the surgeon inserts the tube into the hole in the eardrum. After surgery you child will be monitored for possible complications from the surgery or anesthesia. In most cases, you’ll be able to bring them home a few hours after the surgery.

How to care for your child after surgery

For about 24 hours after ear tube surgery, your child may experience sleepiness, irritability, and some nausea from the anesthetic. Any hearing loss your child has had should resolve with surgery. Within 24 hours they’ll be able to resume regular activity and go back to school or child care.

Your child’s doctor will recommend follow-up visits to make sure the tubes are working well. The doctor may also prescribe ear drops. In most cases your child should be able to swim and bathe normally, but it’s important to check with your doctor first.

For most children, ear tubes can stay in place for more than a year. While the ear tubes are in place your child should have fewer ear infections and less pain if infections do occur.

Often, your child’s ear tubes will fall out on their own. If they don’t, your doctor will recommend surgery to remove them. Once your child’s tubes are out, your child may be more susceptible to ear infection and fluid behind the eardrums again.

Risks and complications

Ear tube placement and surgery is generally considered safe and low risk. However, some complications can occur. These include:

  • Scarring of the eardrum
  • Tubes that don’t come out on their own
  • The hole in the eardrum doesn’t heal
  • Blocked tubes caused by blood or mucus
  • Tubes may need to be reinserted
  • Thickening of the eardrum over time
  • Constant discharge of pus from the ear

When to contact your doctor

Your child will need to attend regular follow-up appointments where the doctor can monitor the ear tubes. In addition, you should contact your doctor if your child experiences:

  • Pain that doesn’t go away
  • Continuing hearing and balance problems
  • Discharge from the ear that lasts longer than a week

If your child suffers from constant ear infections or has hearing loss associated with fluid in their ears, it may be time to think about ear tube surgery. Contact your doctor to learn more about the benefits of ear tubes for your child.