Ear tube surgery is the most common surgery for children in the United States – in fact, about half a million kids have the procedure every year. Kids (and adults) can get ear tubes at any age, but it’s especially common for very young children, under the age of 3. 

To explain more, Connecticut Children’s ear, nose and throat surgeon Christopher Grindle, MD, joins the Growing Healthy blog.

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1. Ear tube surgery can help prevent ear infections and hearing loss in kids.

When fluid builds up in the middle ear, it can cause everything from frequent ear infections to hearing issues. For many kids, ear tubes are the solution.

  • These tiny tubes, which are placed in the eardrum, allow air to flow in and out of the middle ear. That keeps ears healthy, and helps prevent fluid from building up.
  • Ear tubes can also improve hearing, because when there is fluid in the middle ear, the eardrum doesn’t work as well and a child can get a temporary, mild hearing loss. Sometimes the fluid, and the hearing loss, stays around for longer than three months and can impact speech development.

If your child has three or more ear infections within six months, or hearing loss due to fluid build-up over several months, they may benefit from ear tubes.

(By the way: Ear tubes are also called tympanostomy tubes, ventilation tubes, myringotomy tubes or pressure equalization tubes.)

Young boy getting his ears examined

2. Ear tube surgery lasts just 5 to 15 minutes.

Ear tube surgery is an extremely common and safe procedure, led by a pediatric ear, nose and throat (ENT) surgeon.

  • Your child will be under general anesthesia, so they’ll be asleep and comfortable throughout the short procedure.
  • First, your child’s doctor will make a small hole in each eardrum. Then they’ll use suction to remove any fluid from the middle ears. Finally, they’ll insert a plastic tube into each hole.

The tubes are tiny, smaller than the size of a match head. Your child won’t need any stitches, and should be ready to go home in just a few hours.

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3. Kids recover very quickly from ear tube surgery.

On the day of surgery, some kids have a minor earache, low-grade fever, or feel sick to their stomach. But by the next day, your child should feel better, and can return to almost all of their normal activities. It’s even fine to travel in airplanes.

  • Your child’s doctor may prescribe ear drops or medication.
  • For a few days after surgery, it’s normal for a small amount of fluid to drain from your child’s ears. You can use a clean cotton ball to catch the fluid. (Don’t ever use cotton swabs like Q-tips in your child’s ears: They can push wax too far into the ear, or even poke a hole in the ear drum and cause permanent hearing loss.)

Your child will have a follow-up appointment with their doctor soon after surgery, and then every 6 to 12 months until their ear tubes fall out.

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Doctors performing surgery

4. Ear tubes usually fall out on their own.

In most cases, as your child’s eardrum heals, it will naturally push out the ear tube. This usually happens after 6 to 18 months, depending on the type of ear tube your child’s doctor used. If it doesn’t happen within a few years, your child’s doctor can remove the ear tubes with a simple procedure.

If your child starts to have frequent ear infections or hearing loss again, they may benefit from another ear tube surgery. But most kids never need a second set of ear tubes, and naturally outgrow ear infections around 3 to 5 years old.

Think your child might need ear tubes? Connect with Connecticut Children’s ENT experts! We specialize in diagnosing and treating all ear, nose and throat conditions in infants, children and adolescents.