What to expect if your child needs ear tubes

Children's Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Sep 20, 2021

Your child has persistent ear infections. She pulls on her ears a lot. She has a runny nose almost all the time. So your doctor recommends surgery to place ventilation tubes in her ears.

Should you worry?

The first thing to know about ventilation tube surgery, said David Randall Pinkston, MD, an otolaryngologist on the medical staff at Baylor Scott & White – Temple, is this: “It’s very, very safe.”

What are ventilation tubes like?

Ventilation tubes (also called ear tubes) are often recommended for children who experience persistent ear infections. The tubes ventilate the ears so that infection has a minimal chance of recurring. Here are some basic facts about these devices:

  • They’re tiny, just big enough to let air get behind the eardrum. The inner diameter is just a little over 1 mm.
  • They’re generally made of plastic or Teflon. Some are made of metal (titanium).
  • They’re shaped like a grommet or a spool.

Is placing ear tubes a surgical procedure?

Yes, ventilation tubes require surgery and the use of anesthesia.

“In small children, the eardrum is smaller than my pinky fingernail,” Dr. Pinkston said. “I’m operating on it through a microscope where any movement at all is like an earthquake. So it’s critical that the child be absolutely immobile while I’m operating.”

The procedure is quick—taking only 15 minutes—including:

  • Becoming sedated.
  • The surgery itself.
  • Waking up from the anesthesia.

Benefits and risks of ear tubes

The potential benefits include:

  • Few or no ear infections after the surgery
  • A normal hearing test (audiogram) in both ears, if there was excess fluid
  • The tubes will fall out on their own, generally within eight months, and the holes will heal shut

Dr. Pinkston said the risks are few risks, as ventilation tube surgery is a safe procedure. But there are risks like tube blockage and perforated eardrum that you should be sure and talk to your child’s doctor about.

“In a healthy child, undergoing anesthesia at a pediatric surgery center like Baylor Scott & White has where all of the attending anesthesiologists are pediatric trained, the risks are very low,” Dr. Pinkston said.

Age guidelines for ear tubes

Dr. Pinkston said otherwise healthy infants as young as nine or 10 months may receive ventilation tubes to prevent persistent ear infections and fluid buildup in the middle ear. Peak usage of tubes is around 1 to 2 years, tapering off around age 3 or 4.

However, Dr. Pinkston said he places ventilation tubes in patients well into their 80s if they have poor-functioning eustachian tubes.

Think you or your child might need ear tubes? Talk to your doctor or find an ENT doctor near you.

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